Martin Ratcliffe Interview

Recently, Martin Ratcliffe, columnist for Astronomy magazine, came to Detroit on business. Knowing I live in the country north of the city, he contacted me beforehand and we set up plans to meet for lunch, after which I gave him a tour of the C. E. Scovil Observatory here in Imlay City.

Martin also generously agreed to take the time to be interviewed for Simostronomy.

MIKE: Hi Martin, I’m really glad we got this chance to get together and chat. I’ve read your column in Astronomy for years, and we recently became friends on Facebook, so it’s nice to finally meet you in person.

MARTIN: It was great to meet you, Mike, and I enjoyed seeing your fine observatories.

MIKE: To start off, why don’t you tell us where you were born and raised. Do you have any brothers and sisters?

MARTIN: I was born in Consett, Co Durham, in the northeast of England. My father was a Methodist minister and so we moved around a lot. It was in Guisborough, in the northeast as well, and set against a rugged hilly region called the North York Moors, that I first became interested in astronomy.

Last October (2008) I visited the town with my wife – my first visit in 34 years. I found the spot outside the house we lived in that I recall standing and looking up at the Moon. It was a special night because there were two men on the surface. Guisborough is also near the place Capt James Cook went to school – later he observed a Transit of Venus, helping to determine the size of the solar system. I am sure that was an early influence on my interest.

I grew up with a great brother, Simon, who is now a professional voice coach, and my dear sister, Jo, who manages a job-sharing business. They and my two parents still live in England. In my teenage years (1970’s) we moved to Newbury, Berkshire, one hour west of London. It was here that my astronomy interested flourished by joining Reading Astronomical Society, and also the British Astronomical Association (BAA).

I and friend Tim Abernethy ground an 8.75-inch mirror at the school, taking over a derelict shed on the school grounds to which Tim and I got the key. It was our den. After leaving school, I asked if I could remove the shed, since it was partly rotting, and they said yes – so I used it to construct my first roll-off roof observatory (7’x14’). I got a bank loan for a very fine equatorial mount, and used that reflecting telescope on many clear nights. The mirror needed help so I got the excellent services of the famous Henry Wildey to finish the optics for me, and I still have the mirror today, complete with his signature.

MIKE: So, where did you go to school and university? Do you have a degree in astronomy?

MARTIN: I didn’t take a direct path to my astronomy degree. While at High School in Newbury (St Bartholomew’s, founded in the late 1400’s!!), I was keen to work and earn money, and travel. So I left high school before competing A-levels (equivalent to first year US college) and worked in a government analytical chemistry lab. They had a day-release program sending their new staff to vocational college one day a week. After four years I had the equivalent of a two-year college degree in Chemistry – in the UK it wasn’t called a degree but a Higher National Certificate.

Since age 14 I had an interest in attending University College London, the oldest UK university to have a unique astronomer degree program. At age 23 I had entry qualifications (degree places were very competitive) for UCL, and with a recommendation of my organic chem. teacher, got a place. After five years of earning money and traveling the world (SW USA, Kenya – 1980 solar eclipse, Egypt, Germany and France), I became a student again. Thankfully in those days, the local education authority gave grants to pay for students at university.

The astronomy degree program was three straight years of astronomy, physics and math, and it was tough. The proudest part of the course was not my exam results, but the results of a research project in my final year, which was eventually published in a NASA/ESA conference proceedings, thanks to my supervisor, Alan Willis (a Wolf-Rayet expert). My project studied the ultraviolet variability of Scorpius X-1 using IEU data, in which UCL was a principal partner.

However, research was not my destiny. I had given many public talks on astronomy at local astronomy clubs, and always had an interest in planetariums. One night while working at the UCL Observatory in Mill Hill, I found an advertisement for a job at the famous Armagh Planetarium, N Ireland. I could not have written a better dream job description for myself – experience in amateur and professional astronomy, willingness to travel (this was 1985 and Halley’s comet was coming!) and the ability to talk to a wide range of people of wide backgrounds, from 5 year old kids to professional astronomers.

Cut a long story short, I got the job as a Lecturer, and six years later was Acting Director, and this led me to a position in the United States, which I see is a good segue to the next question. At the same time I had spent a great time as a council member of the BAA, Secretary of the JAS (now SPA), and helped coordinate a National Astronomy Week in the UK. Best of all, I developed many friendships in the astronomy world.

MIKE: How did you end up coming to the United States. Was it for school, or a work opportunity?

MARTIN: A new state-of-the-art planetarium was being built in Pittsburgh, PA, part of the Carnegie Museums. The original Buhl Planetarium, built in 1939, had a great history as the fifth US planetarium, and had only four directors in that time. Now that modern astronomy had revealed a 3-dimensional universe, planetariums were evolving towards the ability to show the universe that way using digital technology. The use of digital projection in planetariums was developed in Armagh, N. Ireland, so my experience led me to being offered the Director’s position of the new Henry Buhl Jr. Planetarium. It was the chance of a lifetime. I had visited the US many times on business, and knew many people in the planetarium world, so I fitted in quickly.

MIKE: Where do you live and work now?

MARTIN: I moved again, after Pittsburgh. I got the chance to help develop a new science center, Exploration Place, in Wichita, KS, from the ground up. I was on the early management team, responsible for developing the planetarium theater (called the Boeing CyberDome), and a Simulation Center with an Iwerks moving seat film simulator. I worked there for 7 years from 1997, through the opening in 2000, up to 2005.

We hit the post-9-11 economic downturn which led to serious financial problems and resignation of the President. The search for a new President became interminable, locked into city politics and funding questions, languished for 2 years including letting the top-tier people go to save money (I’m pleased to say the center is now doing well now they have someone with museum experience at the helm again). I took the change as an opportunity to find out what I really wanted to do in life, and with the help of a new lady in my life, Shawn (now my wife) found a focus on science writing.

I had always wanted to do a book, and as luck would have it, a chance to write a general book on astronomy for Barnes and Noble came my way (The Night Sky Deck, now a book, The Night Sky Revealed) and I spent the next three months actively writing. It kept me disciplined, but also taught me that very few people actually earn a living doing only writing. It simply does not pay enough unless you get a best seller, and they are few and far between. So writing remains at the level of a serious hobby. More on that later. Three months later, I had choices to make.

Sky-Skan, a planetarium company from the northeast, offered me a position to be their Director of Professional Development, that is, to travel visiting many planetarium colleagues who bought the digital theater system developed by Sky-Skan, and train them how to use it. Fortunately for me, Sky-Skan allowed me to work from home, so that’s what I do now. I spend roughly 50% at home and the rest as an airport road warrior.

MIKE: You came to Detroit to demonstrate your company’s planetarium equipment. Do you travel a lot around the country with this job? Is part of your job to actually make the sale, or are you really just supposed to demo the equipment?

MARTIN: Yes, I travel a lot. I love traveling, and get to see some amazing places, mainly in the US. We have a training team of about four people. One lives in northern Europe and handles many European and Asian theaters, and I and colleagues handle US and South America. We have offices in Munich and Melbourne too. We have sales department at Sky-Skan, so they handle the actual selling and the contracts. I handle the astronomy, the teaching (which is in my bones), and have selected to handle most demos at university or colleges. These are fun, because I teach astronomy as an Adjunct faculty member of Wichita State University, so I know what professors are looking for in a modern planetarium system.

MIKE: What other planetariums currently use your company’s equipment?

MARTIN: Phew, where to start, I guess Adler Planetarium in Chicago for readers in the US – it’s the oldest theater in the US, and updated their digital theater to a Sky-Skan system in the summer of 2008, just prior to an International Planetarium conference held there.

Last year we opened a major theater in Beijing just prior to the Olympics, and late this year another theater in China opens in Macao. Earlier this year the California Academy Of Sciences opened with the Sky-Skan “DigitalSky” software. If you visit Hilo, Hawaii, just below the Mauna Kea Observatories and across the street from the Gemini Observatory headquarters, you can see our high-definition stereo 3D planetarium, the world’s first when it opened in January 2008, at the ‘Imiloa Science Center.

We also are doing a lot of re-inventing theaters that had the classic old Spitz 512 star projectors and bringing them into the 21st century with our digital capabilities. We are also busy developing educational shows for schools in a collaboration with the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California. So it’s a busy time, and requires lots of retraining for planetarium staff.

MIKE: You are a member or officer of the IPS aren’t you? Tell us what that is and what the organization does?

MARTIN: Yes, I’m a former President of the International Planetarium Society, and spent six wonderful years on the council. As a result of a country pulling out of hosting our biennial conference, I hosted the Society in Wichita in 2002. People thought I was crazy doing both conference host and president – they were right. But professionally it was the best of times. The IPS is the professional organization for planetarium Directors and staff from all over the world. There are 23 regional and national affiliates, each with a representative on IPS Council. The council meets once per year and a major international conference every two years. The next meeting is in Alexandria, Egypt in 2010. Many planetariums are now digital, so there’s increasing collaboration with professional astronomers and their data can be displayed in many new ways.

MIKE: You’ve been writing the monthly sky column for Astronomy magazine for quite some time now. How long has it been?

MARTIN: It’ll be 14 years in August 2009 that I’ve been writing the night sky column. I am always thrilled when I hear of a reader who actually uses the column. My favorite story recently was a planetarium colleague who uses the column to provide David Letterman (for non-US readers, Letterman is a talk-show host on US TV) with interesting astronomical things to look at for his son when he is on vacation.

MIKE: How did you get a cool job like writing for Astronomy?

MARTIN: I’d been writing for the UK magazine, Astronomy Now, in the late 1980’s. Patrick Moore began that column along with being its Editor. Patrick approached me to take on his column, which was a thrill. A few years later I’d moved to the US but continued with the column. While attending the American Astronomical Society in San Antonio in 1995 my good friend Jeff Kanipe, Managing Editor of Astronomy magazine, approached me to take over the column from Deborah Byrd (of Star Date fame). She had decided to ‘retire’ after ten years writing the column. I was both honored and challenged. Now looking back, it’s hard to believe I have done it for so long. I still enjoy writing each month. My editor’s biggest challenge is translating some of my “English” style to American.

MIKE: You’ve written quite a few books. For example, “The State of the Universe.” Are you going to continue putting out that series of books? Do you have any other plans for future books?

MARTIN: The two years of State of the Universe was a labor of love. It’s a review of major news stories of a 12-month period, followed by invited articles from the researchers themselves. It is a serious attempt to be an annual review for the serious amateur, teachers, planetarium staff and anyone else interested in astrophysics. Quite often I would pick the invited reviews from American Astronomical Society prize winners. However, the publisher decided not to do a third year.

My other book is the Night Sky Discovered, a general introduction to astronomy with some very nice star charts – that’s available through Barnes and Noble. A year ago I finished a serious book about Cosmology – it’s an introductory text for high school and first year undergraduates and provides a non-mathematical reader a thorough introduction to modern cosmology. It should come out later this year. I teach a general intro course in cosmology at Wichita State University for non-science students, and that experience, along with taking intro courses at the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago, gave me the material and confidence to proceed.

MIKE: What are your favorite objects to observe and image?

MARTIN: Comets, and galaxies, and solar eclipses. I grew up trying to image galaxies and nebulae with 400 ISO film and an F/10 scope. Hopeless. The folks who did this in the 70’s and 80’s were brilliant, patient, plus had really good gear. With my CCD camera I can get an image in 30 seconds what would have taken hours a couple of decades ago. I still get a great thrill when spiral arms appear on the screen. I’ve started tracking down Arp Galaxies, and the Arp Atlas (by Jeff Kanipe) helps enourmously.

I love comets too. My first job at Armagh was to take a C5.5-inch Schmidt camera, which I had never used before, and develop a technique to get images of Comet Halley without scratching the film. Those who have done Schmidt Camera photography know what I am talking about. Handling individual chips of film in the Australian outback is an experience never to be forgotten, but the images were stunning. One of them graced the cover of the BAA Journal. I used the same camera to image Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp. Now I wonder what to do with that camera. Its image quality is excellent, but cutting individual chips of film and processing them in a developing tank was a great adventure in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but I spend my limited time at the telescope with my CCD camera.

In the past three years I’ve begun imaging planets with a video cam, and imaging galaxies with my CCD camera (through not forgetting Comet Holmes, which was great with by SBIG 2000 XM and Nikon Lens). However, my day job keeps me on the road so my time at the telescope is relatively infrequent. I can’t wait to retire so I can do lots of observing, and of course with my dear wife’s support. I’ve travelled to see six total eclipses of the Sun, two of them I filmed for television. In 2006, I joined Jay Pasachoff’s team on the Greek island of Kastelorizo, and got the best images I had ever achieved of an eclipse. Oh, and right after the diamond ring effect, I gave my lady friend an engagement ring, that way she’ll remember the eclipse:-).

MIKE: Astronomer and romantic. I’m impressed! What kind of telescope do you have? Is it in an observatory in your back yard?

MARTIN: My C-11 is in my 8’x10’ roll-off roof observatory in my backyard. It’s the fourth I’ve built, so I’m getting better! I just mounted a TV-4-inch piggyback. I own a portable 6” Mak that I use if there is travel involved, and my favorite oldest telescope is a 4” Cooke refractor that was given to me as a teenager, and was totally refurbished in the past decade by the expert hands of Frank and Tom Bopp.

MIKE: You know I’m going to ask this…do you observe variable stars? I see you’ve just joined the AAVSO. Did I have anything to do with that?

MARTIN: Haha, yes Mike, you had a lot to do with that. I have dabbled with variable stars over the years. I did a detailed series of observations of Delta Cephei from central London for my college degree. I used to be a member of the BAA VSS, and attended their meetings often. On arrival in the US I joined the AAVSO, largely because the Carnegie Science Center had a 16-inch scope on the roof with a 1024-1024 CCD camera – huge by 1990’s standards. I wanted to develop CCD work, and recall a great talk by Steve Howell at an AAVSO meeting in Berkeley around the same time. However, the telescope was a disaster for operating (Autoscope), and never worked well. My only really success was imaging a supernova in M51 from our location in central Pittsburgh.

After visiting you a couple of weeks ago, I came home and found my original AAVSO members kit, complete with a signed welcome letter from the wonderful Janet Mattei. Your setup convinced me to get serious. With my travel schedule I am not sure what I will do yet. This week I received my V filter, thanks to your advice, since without that CCD magnitudes are meaningless. I’ve had the tools for years, and the interest – but never got organized. Most of my observing has been planetary, comets, and deep sky. So now to get organized for VS work.

MIKE: Now that we’re several months into it, what’s your opinion on the way the International Year of Astronomy 2009 is going thus far? What are the early success stories?

MARTIN: There are success stories across the globe. I’m involved with 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast, which has a growing audience. I am impressed with the Galileoscope, and hope that many kids get one of those for just a few dollars. The optics are much better than most $100 scopes. I think the difficultly with anything like IYA is getting mass media attention, and that is extremely difficult without major funding, and I know that didn’t come to fruition in the US, which was unfortunate. There are many success stories I don’t know about, so I’d encourage everyone to get involved at a local level somehow, even if it is as simple as dragging your telescope out to the front of your house and showing some top objects to your neighbors.

MIKE: What do you think are the most exciting things we’ve seen happen in the last ten years in astronomy?

MARTIN: I think there’s book here! But briefly, I am continually amazed by the fantastic steps being made in astronomy.

MIKE: I’ll be looking forward to your book ‘looking back on the last ten years’!
What do you think the next ten years has in store for us? Are there any particular areas of exploration you really look forward to seeing?

MARTIN: I am excited about the next ten years. We have the prospect of detecting light from the first stars formed after the Big Bang – predicted and not yet observed. Herschel of the James Web Space Telescopes should achieve that. I think the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will revolutionize professional and amateur astronomy in ways we cannot image yet. It’s the Sloan Survey on steroids, and is a full sky survey (visible from Chile) is repeated every three nights. And the final detection of Earth-like planets and analysis of their atmospheres by Herschel and JWST will be exciting. In the near term, I am very excited by the forthcoming SM4 mission to re-invent the Hubble Space Telescope once more, and to have the ACS working again.

Thank you, Martin. It was a pleasure getting to know you. I'd say we can both add another friendship to the ledger of good things to look forward to in astronomy.


RevAaron said...

Great interview! Thanks for posting.

Holly Schaffer said...

Dear Friends @ Simostronomy ~

Perhaps you'd be interested in seeing a copy of this great new book for possible review and / or author interview on Simostronomy? It's called The Observatories of the Southwest: A Guide for Curious Skywatchers (read about it @

Let me know if you'd like to see a copy. I'll be happy to put one in the mail for you.

Best wishes,
Holly @ The University of Arizona Press