Dr Jonathan Nichols is a space scientist and lecturer at the University of Leicester. Within his career to date, he has worked on a large Hubble Space Telescope program of observations of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s ultraviolet (UV) auroras, as well as the NASA Juno mission to Jupiter. He talks to TEDxWandsworth about the desire to explore, the excitement of discovery and why Scotty will, sadly, never get beamed up.
How are you preparing for your TEDxWandsworth talk?
The TEDx talk has got me reflecting on mankind’s efforts since before the dawn of history to understand the cosmos and our place in it. I’ve been trying to think about how the Juno mission fits in with this journey of discovery, and how its epic scale can be brought down to the level of our everyday understanding.
How did you come up with the idea for your talk?
My role as a Science Team Member on the Juno mission provides the background for a talk about the daring Juno mission to uncover the truths about Jupiter.
Why are humans so driven to explore and expand?
It is intrinsic in our nature, probably serving our ancestors well as a survival trait, and of course much of modern scientific endeavour aims to improve our lives in some way. Having said that, the basic desire to understand the Universe and its workings arises from this inherent curiosity. It helps when the Universe is so obligingly breathtaking!
What is the future of space exploration, in your opinion? Will the ‘Hollywood’ notion of space travel be a reality someday?
I think it’s probable that in 20 years we will have an established moon base and will have at least visited Mars. New players in the space game, both in the form of private companies and countries such as China, are driving the resurgence in interest in manned space exploration.
We will also have had further missions to Jupiter (an ESA mission currently called JUICE and a NASA mission called Clipper), and I would like to think that we will have launched a spacecraft toward Uranus.
Further into the future there is little reason why the Hollywood notion of colonies on other planetary bodies cannot be realised – though I’m afraid that more wild fantasies inconsistent with the laws of physics (Scotty, I’m thinking of you and your beam) will remain purely on film.
Who or what inspires you?
My old PhD supervisor, Prof. Stan Cowley at the University of Leicester, is a huge inspirational figure in my work. His understanding of the science behind the Northern Lights, as well as his generous approach to teaching, and unparalleled clarity of explanation, are a true inspiration.
Would you describe yourself as an extrovert, or an introvert?
On balance, an extrovert.
How do you spend your down time?
I am a dad to two children, which takes up most of my time! Otherwise, reading and playing my guitar.
What one thing would you like to know before you die?
I would like to know whether there is life in an ocean below the surface of one of the icy moons in the solar system. All the ingredients are there: water, nutrients, heat, and stability. Did life evolve?
What is your favourite TED or TEDx talk?
I thoroughly enjoyed Arthur Benjamin’s ‘A performance of Mathemagic’. It succeeds spectacularly in showcasing the magic and beauty of mathematics.
Looking at a computer screen revealing a little piece of knowledge about the Universe that no one else in history has ever known. That moment of discovery is why I’m a scientist.
Interview by Rosy Edwards