Dr Niamh Shaw is that relatively rare thing – a skilled and engaging stage performer who also happens to be a scientist and engineer, with both a degree and PhD to her name. Clearly, she’s keen on spreading a greater understanding of science and the wonderful universe around us, though always with what could be termed a dose of scientific realism: for example, pointing out that the more we study the universe, the more complicated it appears to become. And that the more we look at the skies, the smaller we become as the universe just keeps getting bigger.
Even the smallest speck of black space is actually full of the ancient light of impossibly distant galaxies.
To Space is an autobiographically grounded work with a touch of the Royal Institute Christmas Lectures, chemical experiment included – though there’s nothing that goes “Bang!”. She looks back at various moments in her life, providing documentary evidence with a host of old family photographs and extracts from her childhood and teenage diaries, projected on the wall behind her. Early on, she shares her memories of when her eight-year-old self watched Star Wars for the first time, and how the launch of the Millennium Falcon captured her imagination. When Han Solo powered up his iconic ship’s light-speed drive, young Niamh absolutely fell in love with space, travelling between the stars, and the idea that something like the Millennium Falcon could be engineered. So she decided there and then that she would become an astronaut in order to get into space.
So Niamh worked hard at school, and went to university; most recently she spent several weeks on the Space Studies programme at the International Space University. But you can’t help but feel her disappointment when she tells us that her engineering degree and choice of PhD science subject don’t quite match what the European Space Agency (ESA) is now looking for in its future astronauts. Still, she has her own astronaut trainee uniform to show for her recent studies; it just doesn’t include the badge name of a particular future space mission.
Today’s older Niamh may still be grounded, she’s nevertheless looking up at the stars in the knowledge that – thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope – we now know that what looks like even the smallest speck of black space is actually full of the ancient light of impossibly distant galaxies. What is it about space that appeals to her – to us all? It’s not exactly clear that she knows for sure, but she’s aware that desire to explore is a long-established human instinct. And that space has so much to teach us.