Eternal explorer

For half a century, Ken Pounds has been part of Leicester's astronomy department - even in retirement, he's in every day

January 28, 2010

In his 50 years as a space scientist at the University of Leicester, Ken Pounds has seen a lot of change.

Some has been close to home, some much farther afield: when he joined the university in a newly formed research team, Neil Armstrong had yet to set foot on the Moon.

Having completed a PhD at University College London, Professor Pounds began his academic career in 1960, joining Leicester as an assistant lecturer. After being promoted to deputy director of space research in 1967, and made professor of space physics in 1973, he decided not to leave.

Now, as Leicester celebrates 50 years of space science at the institution, the emeritus professor is as much a part of the university as ever.

"I do go in every day. My wife would tell you that she hasn't noticed any difference since I formally retired in 2002," he said.

Attractive job offers came his way over the years, most notably from the University of Adelaide in Australia and from Nasa, but each time he declined.

"I thought about it, and for all sorts of reasons - I played cricket, I read The Guardian, I liked going to the pub, all that kind of English stuff - I didn't go," he said.

He has not regretted his decision. "Leicester is a very nice university to work in because it's not too big, the campus is quite compact. It's also quite progressive."

Although he remained committed to Leicester, Professor Pounds took sabbatical posts at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, and was the first chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council from 1994 to 1998.

A personal career highlight came in 1990 when he discovered X-ray reflection, which revealed the presence of material in the vicinity of black holes.

Professor Pounds said that one of the most noticeable developments during his career was the scale of the space industry in the UK, which now employs 50,000 people and attracts billions in funding.

"In the early days, everything was so quick. You could get your results within a year," he said. "Now we're dealing in major international missions that have planning periods of ten years. I think those of us that were around in the early days were really quite fortunate."

He was critical of some of the other changes to the academic profession. "In the good old days you basically had to persuade one or two people on a committee that you were the sort of chap worth supporting to get a grant. Now you've got to apply to a research council in triplicate and be examined by peer review groups."

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