Peter Grindrod’s 10 Miles of Mars

Way back in 2013, I interviewed Dr Peter Grindrod for UCL’s student magazine, Pi. Dr Grindrod is a planetary scientist who also puts a lot of time into outreach activities. Last year, he curated a photography exhibition at UCL called 10 Miles of Mars — a huge Martian panorama.

An edited version appears in the magazine (you can read it on page 24 of the online magazine). Here is the full interview.

10 Miles of Mars (source: Londonist)
10 Miles of Mars (source: Londonist)

How did 10 Miles of Mars come about? What was the inspiration behind it?
I’d wanted to do it for years. Every day I get to look at breath-taking images of Mars for my research, and I really wanted to share both their detail and importance to a wider audience. But the final push came when I saw the huge Mars panoramas at the Wonders of the Universe exhibition at the National Maritime Museum earlier this year – they were mesmerising and I knew I had to go for this 10 Miles of Mars idea.

What does the exhibition mean to you?
My idea behind the exhibition was simple – to showcase a beautiful image at an unprecedented scale. Up close, the image was supposed to challenge people with an array of bizarre textures and colours; from further afield, the image could show an ethereal visage of an alien, yet also strangely familiar, world. If people left confused by what they were looking at, or interested in learning more, then I’m happy.

What is important to you about viewing/presenting research as art?
I guess this varies each time it’s done. Sometimes it’s exploring the idea of scale, by removing any reference to size and just letting the shapes talk themselves. Other times it’s the human side of the research, showing the people carrying out the field or lab work. The main thing though is trying to share a little bit of the excitement and wonder that is inherent in science.

What was your favourite thing about the Festival of the Planets (and about EPSC 2013 more generally)?
Without doubt my favourite thing was actually seeing 1000 of the top planetary scientists from around the world here at UCL. It was satisfying to see all the hard work by so many people help make a great conference. On a personal note, being given the chance to take part in Space Showoff at the Bloomsbury Theatre was fantastic. The thought of having to go on a West End stage, in front of 200 people and “be funny” was at first terrifying. But in the end, with the aid of my trusty fire extinguisher and astronaut helmet, it ended up being one of the most enjoyable and rewarding things I’ve done.

What made you decide to become a planetary scientist?
I left school thinking that I wanted to do something ‘spacey’, but wasn’t really sure exactly what field. At university I studied planetary science, for no other reason than it sounded interesting and fun. It turned out to be a real multidisciplinary subject, which meant that I got to dabble in geology, chemistry, physics, engineering – some really fascinating stuff.

Why is it important to understand the geological evolution of planets and moons? (The horrible question: what is your research for?)
One of the most fundamental questions that we can ask is whether we are alone in the universe. Despite exploration of our solar system, and the recent discovery of planets around distant stars, arguably the best chance of finding life, at least in the next few decades, remains with Mars. So understanding the geological evolution of planets and moons, and particularly the habitability of Mars, drives and constrains the search for life in the coming decade and beyond.

You’re an experimenter, a theoretician, a fieldworker as well as a science communicator and curator of exhibitions. How do you find the time to do all this?
Well they’re all complimentary and quite often run in parallel. Experiments can take a long time, so while they’re being set-up or run I can get on with other stuff. And fieldwork is a great chance to grab samples for future experiments. To be honest, I don’t actually consider myself that busy compared to some of my colleagues – for example working on the Curiosity mission, one of my friends had to work on Mars time for 3 months, now that’s tough.

Any advice for those considering an academic career?
Explore different topics, play around, have fun, find out what you’re interested in and be passionate about it – then the hard work is just a hobby.

Any advice for those considering a science communication career?
I mainly do it because I enjoy it. It’s taken me a while to figure out what I enjoy doing and what I’m best at, so my advice would be to just go for it. Try different things, new approaches, but overall be passionate and enjoy yourself – it’s contagious.