The Hobart

Dr Martin George

by Peta Hen
Dr Martin George

When looking at the stars at night, it’s hard not to think about the hidden secrets of the universe and the origin of existence. For Dr Martin George, astronomer and head of Hive Planetarium in Ulverstone, it’s his job to find out.

Where did you grow up and where do you live now? After my parents and I arrived from England, I grew up in Hobart, mostly in King Street, Sandy Bay. After living for many years in Launceston, I now spend most of my time in Ulverstone.

Tell us a little about your work. I am passionate about astronomy communication – that is, bringing the wonders of astronomy and space to the public. I ran the planetarium in Launceston for many years, and I now run the planetarium at Hive in Ulverstone, which has a 10-metre-diameter dome. I write weekly articles in the newspaper, monthly articles in the US magazine Astronomy, and I appear frequently on radio discussing astronomical topics. I’m also a former President, and current Chair of International Development for the International Planetarium Society.

Why did you become an astronomer? When I was just a few years old, I became fascinated with the stars, looking out at them through the bedroom window of our flat in Sandy Bay. I decided I wanted to learn more and more about astronomy, especially after I learned that the stars were so far away that their light takes a long time to reach us.

How does Hive and Tassie contribute to space exploration and scientific studies? Hive has Tasmania’s largest planetarium, in addition to housing a museum, art gallery and science centre. The most important thing about a planetarium is to help people understand the night sky, inspiring people of all ages to become involved in and interested in science. My main contribution to scientific studies has been to research the history of low-frequency radio astronomy research in Tasmania.

Why is studying space and the universe important? The Universe is the biggest natural laboratory in existence. We can use it to test scientific ideas, not just about the Universe itself (because we are naturally curious about our surroundings) but also principles that are directly related to our understanding of scientific phenomena. One of these is the study of planets other than our own, which can help us learn more about planets in general.

Do aliens exist? Or at least a form of biological life out there? At the present time, Earth is the only place in the Universe where we know that life exists. We have never discovered any kind of life elsewhere, but there are places in our Solar System where it could potentially exist in a primitive form. As for aliens, the general way in which that word is often interpreted is ‘intelligent life living on other planets’. Of course, the question is how to define ‘intelligence’; it could be described as being ‘self-aware’, but that doesn’t mean that such creatures have built spacecraft, telescopes, or computers. Another question is whether such life forms a ‘civilisation’ as we know it: a form of ordered community living. So there are many things to think about, but I think that there is probably a range of life out there, from extremely primitive forms to – maybe – forms that have even mastered space travel. However, I don’t think that any aliens have visited Earth!

What advice would you give to people wanting to pursue a career in science and astronomy? Ensure that you include mathematics and science subjects in your plan for your higher education (especially physics, for an astronomy career). This often starts, of course, with pursuing an interest when very young, including doing plenty of reading about science and the Universe and the discoveries that have been made. It also helps to learn about the night sky by observation – go out into your backyard, preferably with a telescope and/or binoculars, and study the objects that we see in the sky. Visiting planetariums is also a big advantage.

What do you love doing outside work? I love travel, and have travelled extensively, having been to 75 countries so far. I especially like learning about the history and culture of different countries and regions. My favourite countries to visit are Austria, France, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Thailand and Japan. I also am passionate about playing bridge, which has been my game of choice since I was 23, in which I am an Australian Grand Master. I love music and play the piano. I have always loved photography, which goes together well with my interest in travel.

Who do you admire? This is a hard one. There are many astronomers, of course, including Brian Schmidt (living) who was part of one of the two teams that discovered dark energy. Historically, there are also many astronomers who deserve a mention, including Henrietta Leavitt, who about 110 years ago discovered an important principle that helps us to find the distances to the stars. Two other historical figures that come to mind are two kings of Thailand: Rama IV (who reigned from 1851 to 1868) and Rama V (1868 to 1910). Rama IV was interested in science (especially astronomy) and modernised Thailand to avoid giving the European powers any excuse to invade; Rama V instigated much modern infrastructure including Thailand’s railways and postal system.

Favourite podcast or tv show? When I was much younger – Doctor Who and My Favorite Martian. Now – Doc Martin and Mastermind.

Secret vice? I do rather like a good red wine – but is that a vice? With the great quality of wines produced in Australia, hopefully it’s excusable!

What are you reading now? Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation by Thongchai Winichakul. It is a fascinating history of not only Thai cartography, but more generally of Thailand (formerly called Siam).

What was your first job? My first job was at Myer Hobart, where I was a Christmas casual in the Men’s gifts section immediately following year 12.

What are your daily news/social media habits? I rely mainly on internet and television news sources, especially the ABC here in Australia. When overseas I make use of BBC World News. My favourite newspaper is the Bangkok Post, in either hard copy or online. I hardly ever look at social media such as Facebook, and I do not have a social media account.

Your favourite place (in Hobart) for…

Breakfast: Brew, a coffee shop in Sandy Bay Road.

Lunch: I normally just get a quick lunch at a Banjo’s in Sandy Bay or Lindisfarne.

Dinner: Mures Upper Deck.

Favourite team? I don’t follow sport, although I do like watching cricket to follow the strategy. The team that I like best is the team of people I work with at Hive!

Dream holiday destination? Bhutan, a small country to the north east of India, for its natural scenery and culture.

Favourite Hobart (or Tasmanian) secret? Not exactly a secret, but my favourite of perhaps the less-visited locations is Remarkable Cave, near Port Arthur. There was a time when it was possible to walk through part of the cave at low tide, but I don’t think it is now allowed.

Parting words? We live in a great place here in Tasmania, where we have wonderful natural scenery and a lovely view of the night sky, including stunning displays of the Aurora Australis. Everyone should spend more time gazing up at night from dark country locations!

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February 2024

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