Interview: “Approaching the Essence of Gravity”

Definitely work less with pen and paper! In fact, it doesn’t really matter what exactly you did in your previous job. The main thing is that in order to become an astronaut, one must first be in a scientific subject. After the application process, selectees receive extensive basic training. You learn a lot of different specialized knowledge, from physics to medicine, biology, geography, chemistry, etc. That’s what makes this job so exciting! I think there is no job on earth with this diversity.

Can you still conduct experiments for your theoretical research on the Moon or Mars?

Since theoretical cosmology deals with large-scale questions, the local gravity on Mars or the Moon would not be suitable for this. But there are plans to build a moon village on the moon, for example, with research facilities and telescopes. Since it is supposed to appear on the far side of the Moon, the interfering radio signals will be shielded from Earth, and one will be able to better observe the universe from there.

Do you think there will be the first Martian colony this century? What topics will be important in this community?

It is likely that a Martian colonization will only be possible within 100 to 200 years. In the early stages of this new society, it would be more about developing resources, conquering lands and securing the continuation of human existence. Prior to this development stage, research colonies will certainly be established first so that the necessary infrastructure can be ensured – eg, isolated capsules containing oxygen, which enable plants and animals to grow. I also believe that most of the effort will be devoted to private tourism and the struggle for leadership in it.

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Do you see similarities between the two professions – geophysicist and astronaut?

As a scientist, it is my duty to push the boundaries of human knowledge. I take our world and our humanity very seriously. I see my job as a unique opportunity to make an important contribution to the future of humanity through scientific knowledge and advances in research and technology. I can well follow this vision at ESA.

As a professor and as an astronaut, you also have to be able to communicate well. In the lectures, one desires not only to impart known knowledge, but also arouse the curiosity of undiscovered people. ESA’s outreach programs also hold several public lectures to draw greater public interest in space travel and science. It is precisely for this reason that it would be a great honor for me if I had the opportunity to inspire young men and, above all, to motivate young women to pursue a career in the natural sciences.

Do you currently have a role model of your own?

I admire Sarah Springmann, who will be the rector here at ETH Zurich until the end of 2021. Not only is she an incredibly strong person, she is very friendly and open-minded. Such leaders are needed in the academic world. The competitive pressure is high and there are still many prejudices. Personally, I am very grateful to have been able to research as an assistant professor at ETH for three years, with an ERC start-up scholarship from the European Research Council. But even with other awards like the ETH Latsis, there were always tough moments, especially as a woman. In such situations, Sarah was there for me personally and gave me very good advice.

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How do you test feminism in research?

Currently, women in research still face more obstacles than men, both at the personal and organizational levels. As a professor, I myself try to involve women from poor areas in my research and empower them to survive in places like ETH. But it always requires a special effort. And you should actually make it easier for these people to have a chance! This is exactly why I’m so happy to have role models like Sarah Springman. With her tremendous energy – she is not only a university professor, but also a triple player – she has launched several initiatives at ETH, notably the “Women in Space and Science” programme. In this context, I myself was able to participate in a comprehensive panel discussion in May and share my experiences. It was touching to receive emails from many of the young students afterward. However, in order to solve problems such as the low proportion of women in sciences (the “leaky pipeline”), i.e. to pave the way through studies, doctorates and professorships for all genders, equal opportunity must be deeply entrenched in the system. Then the woman can also live her love of physics for the long term.

What message would you like to send to our young readers?

Take the road less traveled and dare to dream! Interpreted, this means: take your own path and dare to dream!

What developments do you expect in cosmology in this century?

Proving or disproving dark energy or dark matter would take the field of research to a new level. It is also important to describe the nonlinear growth of cosmic structures and gravitational waves in theory.

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