Why do astronomers do astronomy? It's often assumed that astronomy, at best, is the useless pursuit of measuring the positions of stars in the sky, making it painfully other-worldly, irrelevant, a waste of money, and something that is only studied by old men with long white beards.
However, in actuality, astronomy is a fast-moving subject at the cutting edge of all the sciences, from maths through physics and information technology, to chemistry and even biology. But, further to this, it is highly relevant because it is the most fundamental science of all: the study of how matter behaves in that laboratory of extremes we call the Universe.
Further to that, astronomy touches on some of the deepest questions we ask. How did the Universe begin - and how will it end? Is there an edge to space? How far are the stars? Is there life out there?
This heady combination of cutting-edge science and curiosity combine to make astronomy one of the most fascinating subjects of all. But it is still an area of complete mystery for most people. For instance, how do astronomers go about their tasks? Who goes into astronomy? And what can the person who hasn't studied the subject at university for six years hope to get out of it?
This talk splits into three unequal parts. First, the hows and whys of astronomy. Then a human look at astronomy - how a management trainee working for Top Shop gave it all up for the sake of the stars. Finally, there's astronomy for everyone - how anyone can be an astronomer.
Heather Couper was the Gresham Professor of Astronomy between 1993 and 1996.
After studying Astrophysics at Oxford University, Professor Couper ran the Greenwich Planetarium, and later became President of the British Astronomical Association and Gresham Professor of Astronomy. After presenting two TV series, she and two colleagues set up Pioneer Productions, now one of the leading factual TV companies in the UK. She was the producer of Universe and of the international award-winning programme Electric Skies.
On 2 June 1999, asteroid 3922 Heather was named in her honour.
At the time of her appointment to the Gresham Professorship in 1993, she wrote the following:
How did the universe being? Is there life elsewhere? What's a black hole? Every day, I'm asked questions like this - questions ostensibly about astronomy, but which serve as marvellous springboards into all the other sciences. Because of this, I've always wanted a platform where I could address the "top twenty" questions about the Universe. But how - and where? Broadcasting? Writing? Too remote. But face-to-face lecturing? Absolutely. That's why I'm delighted to have been appointed Gresham Professor of Astronomy, in order to have the opportunity, in Sir Thomas Gresham's words, to explain - as best I can - the "new learning" in the field of the sciences.
All of Professor Couper's lectures can be found here.