Astrobiology, Mars tartan and moths

Charles Cockell, Professor of Astrobiology in the School of Physics and Astronomy talks about his job.

Tell us about the key parts of your role?

I teach a popular undergraduate course in astrobiology that is enormously enjoyable to deliver. I also set up and run a project in Scottish prisons called ‘Life Beyond’ to get prisoners to design stations for Mars. They’ve even published a book on their work.

The other side of my role is in research on life in extreme environments, space missions and other aspects of astrobiology. I try to get into the lab at least once a week if I can. It’s difficult with other duties, but doing science is a huge pleasure and particularly helping others get on their way to doing the same.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Freedom. Provided I’ve done what’s expected of my more formal roles – the freedom to walk into a prison and propose a new way of educating prisoners, the freedom to write a popular science book, the freedom to spend my lunch break designing and registering a Mars exploration tartan.

Tell us something we don’t know about you?

When I was 24, I designed and built a moth catching ultralight aircraft that I flew at dusk over the tropical rainforest canopy in Indonesia. I suppose you might regard it as a more serious phase of my interest in butterflies and moths. I flew with night vision goggles provided by the Dambusters (617) Squadron who were our expedition Patron.

I crashed the moth machine about two months into the expedition. Actually, I wouldn’t generally recommend catching moths using an aircraft.

(Adapted from UoE CSE staff newsletter)

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