A letter to year 12 students from Australia’s legendary astronomer

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Fred Watson

Fred Watson is Australia’s first Astronomer-at-Large, a position within the Commonwealth Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources. He is graduate of the universities of St Andrews and Edinburgh and worked at both of Britain’s Royal Observatories before joining the Australian Astronomical Observatory as Astronomer-in-Charge in 1995. Fred is best known today for his award-winning radio and TV broadcasts, books, music and other outreach ventures. He holds adjunct professorships in several Australian universities, and was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2010. He has an asteroid named after him (5691 Fredwatson), but says that if it hits the Earth, it won’t be his fault. Fred’s latest book is Cosmic Chronicles – a user’s guide to the Universe.

Fred Watson shares some important life advice on being kind, respectful, having fun, and staying within the law.


Dear Year 12,


It’s an honour to be able to drop you a line about life, the Universe, and everything. I’ve been impressed by some of the other letters you’ve received, with great advice from some of Australia’s leading scientists. My suggestions for Year 12 are pretty basic. Be kind and respectful to everyone, act responsibly, stay within the law. Do your best, of course. But have fun. And don’t worry if you’re not sure where Year 12 is taking you, or if it doesn’t work out the way you’d like. As I discovered for myself, years 13 to 94 are all still available.


Actually, I didn’t do Year 12. I grew up in Britain decades ago, and we had something called Sixth Form, a misnomer that occupied two years of our lives. Starting off in Lower Sixth, you got spat out at the end of Upper Sixth, supposedly as a capable individual ready for whatever life might throw at you. In my case, life began throwing bricks before I’d even left. That’s a story for another time, but evidently my two-year make-over had helped, since I seemed to cope OK.


Unlike one of your other letter-writers, who has urged you to keep your hobbies as hobbies, I was desperate to turn mine into a job. This was the dawn of the space-age – and every bit of me wanted to be part of the action. In those days, science was the biggest component of the school curriculum. That was because we lived under a cloud of cold-war bluster that kept threatening to turn into hot-war missiles. Whatever was coming, Britain needed to be ready for it.


So, most of the other folk in my Sixth Form cohort were science nerds. But they were also a pretty cool group. Collaboratively, we stretched the boundaries with out-of-school science investigations that would today be considered dangerous and perhaps even illegal – tinkering with rockets, reagents and the occasional radioactive isotope. We worked hard, but also found time to immerse ourselves in the arts, from the classics to the latest in pop culture. Above all, we had fun – me especially, with a succession of home-made telescopes aimed at discovering the planets of other stars. In the event, it was decades before anyone did that – and it wasn’t me.


So – astronomy was my passion, and I knew it was what I wanted to do. I did OK in my exams and went off to university. But half-way through my astronomy course, everything suddenly ground to a halt. In a crisis of confidence, I decided that astronomers were very limited in what they could contribute to society. My quest to understand the Universe began to look like a selfish ambition that wouldn’t do anyone any good – other than me. As I now know, I was wrong about that, but I switched to physics and maths, hoping to become a useful member of society as a result. It was never obvious what use I’d be, however.


A meandering path eventually led me back to astronomy, and this isn’t the place to describe it. But something inside drove me to the career I’d imagined when I got sucked into the Lower Sixth. I think there’s a similar impulse lurking in most of us. If you haven’t found it yet, don’t worry. It’ll turn up.


Meanwhile, I hope you’ll have a great time in Year 12. That’s what it’s for.



Fred Watson

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