Sketch of Astronomer Heather Couper

This is quite an obscure one, but I’ve drawn her because she was an important pioneer and science populariser in her way.

The Wikipedia page on her begins with this potted introduction to her life

Heather Anita CouperCBE FInstP FRAS[1] (2 June 1949 – 19 February 2020) was a British astronomer, broadcaster and science populariser.

After studying astrophysics at the University of Leicester and researching clusters of galaxies at Oxford University, Couper was appointed senior planetarium lecturer at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. She subsequently hosted two series on Channel 4 television – The Planets and The Stars – as well as making many TV guest appearances. On radio, Couper presented the award-winning programme Britain’s Space Race as well as the 30-part series Cosmic Quest for BBC Radio 4. Couper served as President of the British Astronomical Association from 1984 to 1986, and was Astronomy Professor in perpetuity at Gresham College, London. She served on the Millennium Commission, for which she was appointed a CBE in 2007. Asteroid 3922 Heather is named in her honour.[2]

The online encyclopedia states that she was encouraged in her career after writing a letter to Patrick Moore about it when she was 16. He replied, ‘Being a girl is no problem’. She studied astronomy and physics at Leicester University in 1973, where she met her long-term collaborator, fellow astronomy student Nigel Henbest. The two formed a working partnership, Hencoup enterprises, devoted to popularising astronomy. She then carried out postgraduate research as a student of Linacre College, Oxford, in the university’s Astrophysics department. She became the senior lecturer at the Caird Planetarium at Greenwich. In 1984 she was elected president of the British Astronomical Association. She was the first female president and second youngest. I can remember her appearing on Wogan and playing down the fact that she was the first woman to become president, far preferring to be noted as the youngest. She also served as the President of the Junior Astronomical Society, now the Society for Popular Astronomy. In 1988 the London Planetarium invited her to write and present its major new show, Starburst. In 1993 she was appointed professor of astronomy at Gresham college. She was the first woman to hold the position in 400 years and remained professor until her death.

She wrote and co-wrote with Henbest over 40 books, as well as writing articles for a range of magazines such as BBC Sky at Night, BBC Focus and Astronomy. She also presented a lecture on the solar eclipse in Guernsey in 1999, and led expedition to view other eclipses in Sumatra, Hawaii, Aruba, Egypt, China and Tahiti. She also made numerous public appearances and talks about the cruise liners Arcadia, Queen Mary 2, and Queen Victoria. She was aboard Concorde when it made its first flight from London to Auckland. She also appeared and spoke at various science festivals, including Brighton, Cheltenham, and Oxford. She also spoke at corporate events for British Gas, Axa Sun Life and IBM.

She also presented a number of programmes and series on astronomy on the radio. These included Starwatch and The Modern Magi on Radio 4. She also presented an Archive Hour programme on the same channel on Britain’s Space Race, for which she received an Arthur C. Clarke award. She also appeared on Radio 2, and Radio 5Live, as well as making other appearances on Radio 4. She also presented a series of thirty 15-minute episodes on the history of astronomy. Her shows for the BBC World Service included A Brief History of Infinity, The Essential Guide to the 21st Century, and Seeing Stars, which was co-hosted by Henbest.

She made frequent appearances as the guest expert on various TV programmes, mostly on Channel 4. She made her first TV appearance on The Sky at Night, In 1981 she presented the children’s TV programme, Heaven’s Above, on ITV with Terence Murtagh. I think I remember watching this when I was about 14 or so. She then presented the series The Planets for Channel 4, which was followed by The Stars. She also presented the ITV show Neptune Encounter, the Horizon episode ‘A Close Encounter of the Second Kind’, and Stephen Hawking: A Profile on BBC 4.

Couper, Henbest and the director of her series, The Stars, founded a production company, Pioneer Productions. The Neptune Encounter, which covered Voyager 2’s flyby of the planet, was its first programme. She was also the producer for the Channel 4 shows Black Holes, Electric Skies and Beyond the Millennium. She later left the company to concentrate on more general radio and TV appearances.

In 1993 she was appointed a member of the Millennium Commission. Of the nine commissioners appointed, only she and Michael Heseltine continued until it was wound up.

Outside her work on astronomy, she was also a guest presenter on Woman’s Hour, as well as the John Dunn programme and Start the Week on the radio. She was also interested in local history and literature, and so appeared on Radio 4’s With Great Pleasure and Down Your Way. She also appeared on Radio 3’s In Tune selecting her ‘pick of the proms.’ She was also the narrator on a number of other factual programmes, including Channel 4’s Ekranoplan: The Caspian Sea Monster, and Raging Planet on the Discovery Channel.

So, a huge science populariser, but probably one whose achievements are obscured by other, more prominent, celebrities.

As well as the children’s astronomy programme, I also once saw her speaking on about Mars and the question of life on the Red Planet at the Cheltenham Festival of Science. She had a rather mischievous sense of humour. There’s a real possibility that life in some form has existed on Mars and may exist now, but if it does, it’s almost certainly at the level of microbes. At the time, however, various individuals who had spent too long looking at photos of the planet claimed to have seen much larger lifeforms on the planet. There was a programme on Channel 4 in which a Hungarian astronomer appeared to describe how he believed there were massive mushrooms growing there. People also thought the saw giant ‘sand whales’ crawling about its surface, like the sandworms in Dune. These were, in fact, geological features left by some of the dune’s slumping, which created a trail that looked like the segmented body of a worm. One of the peeps taken in by this was the late Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke rang her up from Sri Lanka, asking her if she’d seen them and telling her that he really didn’t know what to make of it. She commented that for a moment she thought he’d gone mad, then covered her mouth like a naughty child caught saying something she shouldn’t.

For all that she played down her importance as a female pioneer in astronomy, I think she did prepare the say for more women to enter it and become television presenters. There’s now a drive for more women in the hard sciences, and we’ve science had a Black woman presenter, Aderin-Pocock, on the Sky At Night, and female astrophysicists and mathematicians appearing on the radio and TV.

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