Giving up is never an option

I used to observe the skies of Tavistock, the little town where I was born in England. Nothing impressed me too much, but I felt really inquisitive about what was beyond my sight. I remember how much I loved comic books and how that simple hobby pushed me to become what I am now. It all started when I was eight years old. I was reading a comic book about a person who flew around space and it mentioned a place called Venus. I knew nothing about that at that time, so I looked up Venus on the map and I could find no place with that name anywhere near where I lived. Thankfully I found an old encyclopedia and discovered a whole new world up above: Venus was a planet. I could not believe this world and I decided I wanted to study the universe.

However, by the time I was fourteen people started telling me that I had to do something serious in order to earn money in life and I could not just keep dreaming about the stars. Since I did not know any astronomers, I did not know if they earned any money and therefore I could not defend my dream. Only my mum and my physics teacher gave me their support basically everybody else told me I was being foolish and, because I was good at maths, I should try banking or something similar.

By the time I reached the second year at university I still had not met any astronomers, so I figured that astronomy was not a good choice and I should probably do something else. That same year one of my professors, Maurice Wilkins, won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA and with his fame I was able to win a scholarship to go over to the USA to work in a cancer research institute for the summer. I thought it would be the only time I would ever go to the Americas, so I took the opportunity.  There, one of the students invited me to stay with his family in Chicago for a weekend. I had never been to Chicago, I had only heard about it. So I accepted the invitation at once. My friend’s family did not know where to take me so they decided to take me to Adler planetarium, which was the very first planetarium ever constructed in the Western Hemisphere. That was my first time in a planetarium, so I watched the show very thoroughly and after we came out (because I had never been to Chile), I said to my friend it was a very nice show but it was a shame they exaggerated so much. I lived in the countryside in England, I knew what the sky looked like and it was certainly not as full of stars as the show suggested. I received no answer to my comment.

I only found out, when I later came to Chile, that THAT is what the sky looks like. So anyway, with that experience I thought that was the only time I was going to meet anybody associated with astronomy, so I wandered down a dark corridor to find a door marked “director” and I knocked on it. An elderly guy with white hair opened the door and told me to come in. I told him I wanted to be an astronomer and told him my story so far. He gave me a business card -I’d never seen a business card in my life- he also told me to go to an address in Pasadena and present the card he gave me. And so I did. I went down to Pasadena, presented the card, and an elderly man received me, invited me to his office and showed me the place. Then he showed me the galaxies and the stars. I was fascinated looking through the telescope. We chatted away for some time and when I left I said to the receptionist “the person who gives the tours really knows his astronomy very well,” and she said, “That isn’t the tour guide, that is the director.” I nearly fell over my knees. I was so shocked that I had been so relaxed chatting away. I would have been terrified if I had known who he was. Anyway, after my visit they notice that I was very keen to learn and decided to show me the 200 hundred inch telescope. The problem was that they could not pay me to go where the telescope was; therefore, they offered for me to go with an astronomer who was going up the following day. Of course I accepted immediately. I was in the right place at the right time –I met a very famous astronomer who showed me a lot of interesting material.

Once I was introduced to astronomers and telescopes, I felt like nothing could stop me. I started studying astronomy and followed my dream. I loved astronomy right from the start, so learning it was very easy. The rest came with time and a lot of effort. I am semi-retired now. Trying to give back what I have been given, so I am working in education about Tsunami and light pollution in Chile, two very different topics, but equally important to a country like this one.

I have loved astronomy since I can remember and no matter what people said to me, I always kept dreaming about reaching the stars. I took risks and they were totally worth it because at the end of the day, all that matters is trying and not giving up; recognising that you are going to make a fool of yourself sometimes, but you have to keep going. Life is really interesting because things do not always go the way one wants, but still one has to give things a go and find out what the results are. There were times in my life when my wife and I couldn’t predict which continent we were going to be living on in ten years time. How ironic it is now to remember that before going to The US for the first time I thought that was the only time I would be in a different continent. Life offers surprises; we only have to wait for them to arrive.

 

This is the story of Mr. Malcom Smith, former director of CTIO. He told us his story, we recorded it and transcribed it.

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