She’s one of the media’s most popular go-to experts on everything from protons to planets. Áilin Quinlan meets Blackrock Observatory’s Frances McCarthy — and finds out the astronomical treats in store for 2016.
Back in 2005 mother-of-two Frances McCarthy chanced upon a story in the ‘Irish Examiner’ about a new project involving the construction of an observatory at Blackrock Castle.
That article was the beginning of a career that would see her become arguably one of the media’s most popular go-to experts on everything astronomical.
“I rang City Hall and asked to speak with whoever was in charge of the project,” she recalls.
Once she had the right person on the phone, she explained that she would be submitting her CV for a job at the as-yet un-built observatory — and that she was the person they needed to organise the facility’s outreach, school and education activities.
It was hard to argue — with a degree in astronomy and physics and another in teaching, not to mention having a solid 10 years’ experience teaching physics at second-level, she was a formidable applicant.
However, at that early stage the authorities explained, they were still only putting together the criteria for observatory manager.
Undeterred, McCarthy said she would appreciate it if, when the manager had been recruited, they could please pass on her particulars in terms of the outreach position they would eventually need to fill at the observatory.
After that, she quips, she “rang them every three months for two years to see where they were at”.
Once she heard the manager was in place, she recalls, “I rocked up and handed over my CV”.
After all, as she points out:
“What could they say except no?”
And in the face of such high qualifications, expertise, unbounded enthusiasm and sheer determination, how could they possibly?
Unsurprisingly, the mother-of-two was appointed as one of the first members of staff at the observatory in 2007.
So who this woman we regularly see on TVs and hear on our radios?
Born in England and raised in Canada — she studied at the University of Toronto and later worked in London — McCarthy’s first experience of Ireland was in 1988 when she came on holiday and loved it:
“Flying into Cork Airport, my husband said ‘watch out for the cows when we’re coming in to land’.”
After a 10-year stint teaching physics in London, Frances and her Cork-born husband Jonathan, a software engineer, moved to Ireland from London with their young sons, Brendan and Niall in 2000.
“At the time the boys were only three and four years of age, and we wanted to be closer to their Irish family, so we moved to Ireland just in time for them to start school here.
“They went to school in their father’s old school,” she says, “they even had some of the same teachers.”
A few years later, Frances was ensconced in her role at the Blackrock Observatory, where she “very much designed the job,” she says, recalling that she’s “playing to strengths that I know I have”.
Her work entails designing and developing the observatory’s popular schools programme and interacting with students of all ages, from tiny tots still at playschool through to third level students, using the mediums of workshops or school tours.
“I also run our portable planetarium which is brought out to schools, festivals and events.
“I do five-day summer courses for teachers, usually with primary teachers and on a space theme, taking in everything from the stars sun and moon to aliens.”
She also enjoys taking the portable StarDome out to the schools, giving talks in libraries and also talks to the media about space-happenings such as eclipses or the planet Pluto and the New Horizons project.
A popular interpreter of all things space-related, her dynamic but pragmatic approach to making even the most complex concepts understandable to the layman gets a positive response from audiences.
Her media appearances — where she explains everything from the planet Pluto to the origins of a solar eclipse — have elicited a warm response from listeners. “I’ve had emails from people saying that the way I explained something was perfect!”
People have always been very interested in the stars, says McCarthy — even if it’s only reading the horoscopes.
“Humans tend to look outward and what’s out there except space?”
We are intimately connected to space, she observes; we can’t avoid it.
“I was recently doing a story on the life of the star for example.
“We reached the part about how the death of some stars are supernovas.
“The idea is that the material from a supernova is what has formed a planet – and the fact that the earth is here means there was a supernova in our far distant past.”
Children naturally love rockets and astronauts, she says — and she plays to this fascination for all things interstellar.
“We’ve done chats with great space science people — we recently held a video chat for our space camp with a NASA rocket scientist, a 28-year-old woman who is keen as mustard,” recalls McCarthy.
“We had all these great questions about everything to do with NASA, rockets and exploration!”
One of the big reasons she loves working with children, she says, is that once they’re comfortable they’ll literally ask you “anything”.
“Working with young people is working with people who have not already made up their minds,” she declares.
And what about her own sons, now in their late teens?
Are they passionate star-gazers too?
Not quite, quips McCarthy; they’re typical teenagers:
“When I say come on out and check Saturn, they’ll come out and check Saturn; they’re good-natured about it.”
Given the predominantly male household in which she lives, it’s no surprise that she snaps up the opportunity for some female company — so McCarthy has dedicated at least some of her time to her work as a Brownie leader:
“I came up through the Guiding system in Canada, and it was always something I intended to return to.
“Then some years ago a friend of mine said she was with the Brownies — she said she thought I would love it so now I’m a Brownie leader, working with girls aged seven and a half to about 10 and a half.
“We have weekly meetings — it’s a girl only organisation for women and girls — a nice antidote to the men in my life.”
McCarthy also has a passion for the ultra-feminine tradition of quilting, creating a huge number of colourful quilts over some 20 years.
“Just look at these skills involved, and the design and creativity,” she enthuses.
“I’ve always sewn since I was a teenager. I love working with my hands and with textiles and fabric.”
Her life-long passion with outer space has even infiltrated this most traditional of pastimes.
One of her favourite quilts is somewhat obscurely entitled The Four Per Cent Quilt.
“We only know four percent of what the universe is made up of,” she explains — and the Four Per Cent Quilt was specifically designed to celebrate that great mystery of science. “This quilt has dark fabrics — deep maroon, charcoal greys, deep blues, darkest navy and deepest indigo, with panels of stars and planets on a dark background apart from one brilliant yellow star and a crescent moon.”
THE SKY IN 2016
1. January/February 2016 brings Comet Catalina which will be visible to the naked eye in the evening.
2. The year 2016 may be the year for a really spectacular Northern Lights.
3. There will be no fewer than three Super Moons in 2016 – on October 16, November 14 and December 14.
3. One of the biggest events of the year happens during the day of Mary 9, when Mercury passes in front of the sun, appearing like a disc against the sun.
4. On May 22 Mars will come close to earth: “It will look like the brightest star in the sky and we will set up telescopes to show people this phenomenon close up.”
5. Two big meteor showers will take place this year. The first, called ‘Perseid’ will occur on August 12 2016, while the second called ‘Geminid’, will take place on December 13.
6. Last but not least will be the Star BBQ – running from sunset to midnight, this takes place under the stars on August 27 at Roundwood, Wicklow.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved