Interview with Ewine van Dishoeck

The Dutch astrophysicist on discovering the chemistry of the cosmos, whether she’d like to go into space, and if extraterrestrial life would surprise her 

July 19, 2018
Ewine van Dishoeck

Ewine van Dishoeck is professor of molecular astrophysics at Leiden University. After starting her academic career as a chemist, she switched to study the molecular composition of gas clouds in nearby star systems, and the formation of stars and planets, using some of the world’s most advanced telescopes. She has been awarded numerous international prizes for her pioneering work, most recently the 2018 Kavli Prize.

When and where were you born?
In 1955, in Leiden in the Netherlands.

How has this shaped you​?
Leiden is a university town, and my father was a professor in ear, nose and throat medicine. So I became familiar with the academic world at an early stage. My mother was an elementary school teacher. My birth card has me as a baby crawling towards the university building – so clearly my parents were thinking of me going in the academic direction.

Who inspired you early on?
When I was in the second year of high school, my father was on sabbatical in San Diego, so my parents enrolled me there. This was in 1968 – so this was an interesting time, just before the first Moon landing. There I had an African American female teacher in science; she was very inspirational. In hindsight, I realised this was quite extraordinary at the time; she let us do all kinds of exercises, it was a mix of theory and hands-on teaching that I had not yet experienced.

Can you divide your life into a before and after?
The moment that I switched from studying chemistry to pursuing astronomy – that was the key event in my life. You can also say it was of course meeting my husband, because he was the one who triggered it. I really liked chemistry, and was convinced I wanted to continue in quantum and theoretical chemistry. But the professor had just died in that area, so I was told to look somewhere else for a PhD. Then my husband – my boyfriend at the time – he was studying astronomy, and had just been to a series of lectures, including one on molecules in space. He said to me: “Isn’t that something for you?” I realised that interstellar space was this perfect laboratory.

When you talk to people about your work, what surprises them the most?
What surprises them is how accurately we can determine the composition of cosmic clouds even though we cannot go there. Remote sensing is incredibly accurate – we really have the fingerprints of so many different molecules, from simple to complex. I also surprise them by saying that the water we have here on Earth, the water in our bodies, is already more than four-and-a-half billion years old. Those hydrogen and oxygen atoms came together in the cloud before it collapsed to form our solar system. As one of my colleagues put it: the water on Earth is older than the Sun itself.

Would you want to go into space?
I would love to be the science officer on the Starship Enterprise and fly into the Orion nebula. But I have no desire to go to Mars. I’m happy to sit here on my beautiful Earth.

Some of your research has focused on water in space. Would it surprise you if extraterrestrial life were discovered in your lifetime?
I certainly wouldn’t be surprised, but it may be another 50 years or so before we have undisputed evidence. In nearly every forming star and planetary system there is enough water and organic material to make life; in one planetary system there are 6,000 oceans of water, for example. Going from organic molecules to living organisms is still a step that we don’t understand, but there are chemists who say there are thousands of ways to do it. The ingredients are certainly common; even within our own Milky Way, there could be more than a billion Earth-like planets. Whether life originates there, we don’t know; the chances are certainly non-zero. Multicellular life took a very long time to develop on Earth, and from there it’s still another step to intelligent life.

It’s a cliché, but does studying space make earthly events seem less important?
It makes you somewhat humble. It also means that these things happening here on Earth, like people fighting, are put into a totally different perspective. We all live under the same beautiful starry sky.

If you hadn’t become an academic, what would you have been?
My husband and I met in an orchestra, and there was a time I was thinking whether to continue in music or research. But I always felt in music I wouldn’t be able to get as far; I knew I had some talent, but not very much. What would be my future? Probably a music teacher; that didn’t sound as exciting as being a researcher.

What one thing would improve your working day?
Less administration. It’s this lack of trust – after an exam, you used to just give a grade and that was it. Now you have to fill out I don’t know how many forms. For everything these days they want to cover every eventuality, so you end up filling out more and more forms that take away time from what we should be doing, namely teaching and spending time with the students to talk about research.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Sir David Bell, currently vice-chancellor of the University of Reading, will be the next leader of the University of Sunderland. Sir David, who has led Reading since 2012, will join Sunderland in the autumn, following the departure of Shirley Atkinson later this month. Sir David, who was England’s chief inspector of schools between 2002 and 2006, and permanent secretary at the Department for Education between 2006 and 2012, said that he had “always had the greatest respect for [Sunderland’s] inclusive ethos and how it delivers opportunities and personalised support for students from all walks of life”. “I am particularly excited about the prospect of working with students, staff and partners to deliver a flexible, relevant academic curriculum and a compelling research agenda,” he said.

Andrew Atherton has been named the next principal of the University of Dundee. Professor Atherton, currently deputy vice-chancellor and professor of enterprise at Lancaster University, will take up the post in January 2019 following the retirement of Sir Pete Downes. The former senior deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Lincoln said that Dundee was “establishing itself as one of the UK’s best universities, based on an outstanding student experience and research that genuinely transforms and improves people’s lives”.

Sam Kingman has been appointed pro-vice chancellor for engineering at the University of Nottingham. Currently associate pro-vice chancellor and deputy head of the Faculty of Engineering, Professor Kingman has been at Nottingham since 2000 and was one of the youngest professors in the UK when he was awarded a personal chair six years later.

John Hyman, currently professor of aesthetics at the University of Oxford, will be the next Grote professor of the philosophy of mind and logic at UCL. The London institution has also named Nilanjan Das and Lavinia Picollo as lecturers in philosophy, with the pair joining from New York University Shanghai and LMU Munich respectively.

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