Spotlight on... Dr Francisco Diego

This week we talk to Dr Francisco Diego from UCL’s Department of Physics and Astronomy about his long and varied career at UCL, his passion for education and outreach, and the healing power of classical music.

What is your role and what does it involve?

I am a Lecturer in a module for first year undergraduate students (large numbers!) which involves practical work at the UCL Observatory, and the Admissions Tutor and Lecturer for the new course, Introduction to Astronomy (evening classes for mature students). I am also the founder and director of the UCL Your Universe Annual Festival of Astronomy and Particle Physics.

I also run lectures and workshops for schools, teachers and the general public, called ’The Mind of the Universe’ and ’Think Universe’, developed under a couple of STFC Science in Society fellowships, reaching audiences of around 30,000 (in the UK, Mexico and Cuba). Some lectures have featured in the UCL Minds Lunch Hour Lectures.

I have also appeared on TV documentaries such as Stephen Hawking’s Universe, BBC’s The Planets, Genius by Stephen Hawking, The Seven Ages of Starlight, The Secret Life of the Sun and the live BBC broadcast of the 1999 total solar eclipse, and I  am a regular guest contributor to live interviews on TV News channels such as BBC, Sky, Aljazeera, Euronews and TRT World (the picture shows my Sky News studio interview about the Rosetta mission to comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko).

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I came to the Department of Physics and Astronomy in 1982 as a postgraduate student, with a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Mexico. My PhD thesis was about the optical design, building and testing of the UCL Echelle Spectrograph, one of the largest ever built, installed at the then Anglo Australian Telescope. Subsequently, I collaborated on similar projects in Hawaii, Mexico, Canary Islands and the European Southern Observatory.

I was a Lecturer in the Certificate of Higher Education in Astronomy, teaching astronomical instrumentation, solar system and practical experiments at the UCL Observatory for more than 20 years. I’ve also been on around 20  total solar eclipse expeditions, all over the world, some in collaboration with solar physicists from the UK, Germany, Poland and France, to study the heating and morphology of the solar corona.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

My PhD thesis, which earned the prestigious Harrie Massey prize (1986-87). It was a lot of work as part of a very nice team for more than six years.

As a founder and director of the Your Universe Festival, I am proud of its success - the Festival is now in its 18th year.

Teaching adults coming from diverse ways of life in the Certificate of Higher Education mentioned above has been one of the most rewarding projects in my life at UCL.  Let’s remember the words by Christa McAuliffe (science teacher tragically killed in the Challenger disaster):  "I touch the future. I teach."

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list

Paradise Planet Earth: A Cosmic Miracle Under Threat. It is an outreach project about the origins of the universe, matter, solar systems, paradises, life itself, and humankind. The project will contain lectures, performances, debates, etc. A sample lecture has been piloted in schools and for mature audiences, and a semi-staged version is part of the Bloomsbury Festival 2023. The corresponding webpages are under construction. The project will have a strong educational component, which I plan to develop in collaboration with the UCL Institute of Education.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

Please forgive me for these long, (perhaps unusual) answers.

Beethoven’s symphonies (mainly the first, fifth, seventh and eighth) will lift anyone’s spirit, especially in the most difficult personal situations, as it was in my case. Also Mahler Symphonies second and third, Bruckner symphonies fourth, seventh and eighth, and Wagner’s Parsifal, The Ring and Lohengrin.

My greatest and most deeply human musical experience? Singing in the majestic Grande Messe des Morts by Hector Berlioz at the Royal Albert Hall, in the tenor section of a massive choir with more than 1,000 voices.

Songs. Richard Strauss’ Wiegenlied (lullaby) sang by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf with the London Symphony Orchestra under George Szell, Schubert’s An Die Musik, sang by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau accompanied by Gerald Moore. Pare sung by Joan Manuel Serrat (look for translations, as he always sang this one in Catalan).

Movies. Clarke/Kubrick 2001: A Space Odyssey, a lesson on humanity, with an accurate warning about the dangers of artificial intelligence; Tolstoy’s War and Peace, an epic Soviet super production by Sergei Bondarchuk, about the beauty of life and the stupidity of war. The amazing wisdom in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.

Books. The Little Prince. Full of hidden wisdom to be discovered by reading it again and again as we age. Orwell’s 1984 and Golding’s Lord of the Flies (and the extraordinary movie by Peter Brook).

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?

He wanted to buy a good camouflage jacket, but couldn’t find any!

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

David Attenborough, Martin Luther King, Stephen Hawking, Rosa Luxemburg, Carl Sagan, Jane Goodall, Jose Marti, Galileo Galilei, Richard Feynman, Roger Waters, Greta Thunberg, Richard Dawkins, Noam Chomsky, Eduardo Galeano and many more. All heroes of humanism, and fighters for human rights, equality, awareness of our place in the universe and protection of the environment.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Well done so far. Remember that people are more important than material possessions. Be humble. Keep learning. Never give up. There is so much to do.

Whatever you think and do in your life, be driven by sincere love. Love for yourself and those around you, love for humankind, love for this wonderful Paradise Planet Earth.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

Many would be surprised by this interview.

What is your favourite place?

Hawaii Big Island near Kalapana Beach, under a full moon, sharing, with my loved ones, the view of incandescent lava from Kilauea slowly flowing into the powerful waves of the Pacific Ocean. A dramatic confluence of sky, ocean and earth.
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