Skip to content

Chris Lintott (Zooniverse)

Subscribe using your preferred service

About this episode

#24 — Today on The Microscopists, we’re joined by astronomer Professor Chris Lintott of the University of Oxford, co-founder of The Zooniverse citizen science platform, and a presenter on the BBC’s The Sky at Night programme. In this wide-ranging and enlightening chat, we discuss early inspirations, the importance of public engagement in science, the wacky rules and regulations of real tennis, and why the public like counting pictures of penguins. And we’ll hear how Zooniverse projects such as Etch a Cell are helping life scientists with their research. Chris also tells us more about the most difficult time in his career and why, when you don’t know what to do, it’s always better just to do something!

Follow Peter, Chris, and The Zooniverse on Twitter or Watch the Steve Perry video Peter & Chris discuss.

Share this to your network:

Sponsored by

Listen now

Watch Now

This is an automated transcript and may not be 100% accurate.

Intro/Outro (00:00:02):
Welcome to The Microscopists, a Bitesize Bio podcast hosted by Peter O’Toole, sponsored by Zeiss Microscopy. Today on The Microscopists.

Peter O’Toole (00:00:20):
I’m chatting to Chris Lintott, top of the University of Oxford and co-founder of the Zooniverse and co-host of The Sky at Night. And we talk about the public engagement in science.

Chris Lintott (00:00:32):
So I think there are scientists that are naturally going to be more in the public eye. And I think those fields have a responsibility to invest in excellent engagement and outreach.

Peter O’Toole (00:00:44):
How alien invasion can wreak havoc on your vintage.

Chris Lintott (00:00:49):
One of the rules, I think in Bordeaux, but it may be it’s actually Burgundy is that if an alien spacecraft lands in your vineyard, then you cannot for the next three years, call yourself proper Burgundy wine,

Peter O’Toole (00:01:03):
And why everyone should try real tennis.

Chris Lintott (00:01:06):
It’s a brilliantly ridiculous game. There are, you get a point. If you hit the unicorn, for example,

Peter O’Toole (00:01:12):
Why it’s not helpful to plan too far ahead.

Chris Lintott (00:01:16):
In my experience, at least the path is much more random, and you’re going to be multiple bucketed by, by random events, jobs that are available, things you find. And so it’s almost not worth worrying about too many steps ahead

Peter O’Toole (00:01:33):
All in this episode of The Microscopists.

Peter O’Toole (00:01:44):
Hi, welcome to this episode of The Microscopists. And today I’m really fortunate to be joined by Chris Lintott from, who is an Oxford astrophysicist he’s importantly for today, actually the creator of the Zooniverse. And maybe I should look through my background first and did a background check, but also presenter of Sky at Night. So at this point I’m really, really intimidated on Chris. I just found that out Chris, how are you today?

Chris Lintott (00:02:10):
I’m sorry. I’m intimidating, but otherwise, otherwise I’m trying, I’m looking forward to having a chat.

Peter O’Toole (00:02:17):
Yeah, no, no, I, I, I know you through others and now I’m not really that intimidated. I know, I know you and everything else. So I know when I invited you to talk on The Microscopists, your question was, well, I’m not a microscopist, but I think you have had profound impacts on the life science and the microscopy world. And so actually, I, to be great to get to know you, your initiatives, and really hopefully inspire other people to work with you and to help some of the projects that your involved in, but you know what, let’s, let’s start with the astrophysicist part. What inspired you to start with, to become an astronomer rather than the life scientist?

Chris Lintott (00:02:59):
Well, unusually I’m an astronomer who grew up looking at the stars. So most of my colleagues are sort of escaped physicists or mathematicians who find the problems. Interesting. I grew up as a kid in Devon looking up at the night sky and asking questions about what I was seeing. And the thing that inspired me then was the idea that we could tie observations, like the fact that some of the stars were different colors to the physics, to the understanding of the cosmos. So, so that was the idea that inspired me, and really I’ve been lucky enough to keep asking those questions and trying to understand the universe, the other great secret, of course as this is primarily talking to people who are interested in life sciences is that physics is much easier and astronomy is much easier to try to understand something as complex as a cell let alone an organism. So I quite like I’m quite lazy and I like nice, simple problems. As if you’re trying to describe the universe as a whole, you have to do it at a level that is nice and nice and simple. So, so maybe I’ve just started with the easy stuff and we’ll, we’ll work up from there.

Peter O’Toole (00:04:07):
I think if you could explain the big bang and where those two particles came from to start with, I see that that is mind-blowingly difficult and complex, I think.

Chris Lintott (00:04:15):
So, we don’t understand that bit. So that’s fine. I can do everything after that. So I often tell people, because I’m an observational astronomy. So, so I get my hands on data. I like with telescopes. I like to think of new ways to look at the universe. So my domain starts probably a few minutes and more likely about 400,000 years after the big bang the theorists and their chalkboards can have the first few minutes.

Peter O’Toole (00:04:42):
Yeah. Yeah. So you’re focused on the long game. They’re focused on a very, very, very momentary yes event, I guess. Right. You’re in start to astrophysicist aspect to it. And star formations. I, if you don’t mind, how old were you when you became professor at Oxford?

Chris Lintott (00:05:05):
Let’s see. I was 33 which is pretty early, but I got lucky and things fell. It fell into place a bit you know it’s a great privilege. It’s, it’s wonderful to go back, but for me, the important bit was just to keep getting to do what I’m doing. I always assumed that at some point I’d run out of road and stop being an astronomer. I’d have to go and find something else to do so. So for me, the great privilege that we won the title is to be here and to be able to work on slightly crazy projects. I’ve usual things with great people. Yeah, it’s an amazing thing.

Peter O’Toole (00:05:49):
So you don’t, if you ever found it, I know people ever looked at you with envy or to take it at 30 such a young age to be a professor I mind-blowingly young. Is that been a good thing or a bad thing or a mixed bag?

Chris Lintott (00:06:05):
You know, I’m not sure that being a professor made much difference. I got my own pigeonhole, so that was nice. And I think my know my parents finally understood what it was that I did because they recognize the title. But, but apart from that, I think, you know, in, in academia, I think it really is those of us lucky enough to have a permanent or semi permanent job versus everyone else. So that, that, that, that was a big moment, a few years earlier. I’ve never really, I haven’t really thought about the, the age piece, so it’s not something that I can keep track of. It it’s a, it didn’t feel young to me. But then I don’t, I know I’m not sure how I’m not really answering your question because it’s never really occurred to me, so maybe I’ll work on it, but I’m not sure. I mean, I think being at Oxford is weird because I love this place. It’s got great things go for it. But in the world, particularly in the US you say Oxford did, it has all sorts of connotations. And obviously in this country you say Oxford and there’s a certain sort of Brideshead revisited type stereotype of people punting down the Thames. And opening champagne bottles, and we only do that three or four times a week. So, so, so I think bigger Oxford adds this extra dimension to it that that’s a bit strange and big. It’s interesting, big an astrophysicist is a thing as well. So the joke is that, except that it’s true is that if you’re talking to, let’s say, you’re talking to somebody on a plane or something. You want to have a conversation with them. You say you are an astronomer, everyone has questions for astronomers, whether that’s, you know, have you seen, have you seen aliens? Do you know Brian Cox, you know, these big fundamental questions or if you don’t want to talk to the person sitting next to you, you say you’re a physicist and then that’s it it’s done. And so astrophysics is the thing, but I was an Astrochemist originally. So my PhD was on the chemistry of star formation. So it comes back to trying to understand the universe of observing it. You need as much information as possible. So if you think about chemistry, as well as physics, you think about composition of the molecules that are, but we could get much more information about the processes of star formation. So I call myself an astronomer first and foremost, because that’s about looking at the sky. I do astrophysics, and there’s a bit of astrochemistry these days. There are astrobiologists knocking around and I know at least one person who thinks they’re an Astrosociologist which has tried to explain the likely structures of alien civilizations. So I guess we’ve reached the life sciences after all.

Peter O’Toole (00:08:40):
Well, I actually surprisingly astrochemists so actually probably worth lifting to stop phrases. The Microscopists with Scott Fraser, he was a physicist/chemist/biochemists. So he’s kind of dipped all sorts, but one of the big things in light microscopy some 20 years or so ago was then mixing colors, fluorescent colors to enable us to look more colors that were coming out to our fluorescent images. And actually that was inspired through the deconvolution the algorithms coming out of astronomy and astrophysics that are mixing the colors you are seeing down to the components and using that single components analysis, deconstructing them into the different colors.

Chris Lintott (00:09:25):
Yeah. Which is something we were used to doing. I think astronomy is an interesting field and it has these links to other fields because I think we were very early to adopt digital detectors. So the sky surveys in sort of the early nineties and switched to electronic cameras for film. And so I think we had a lot of exposure to those techniques early on. But also because astronomy data is basically useless. It has no commercial value whatsoever. And so we tend to be a field that is very open with our data and our algorithms and our processes. So I think that leads people to collaborate with all sorts of people, but I could look around the country, my colleague, Brooke Simmons, who we might talk about her work in a bit, but she does disaster relief projects on the side that analyzing satellite images to, to help first responders, Sarah Bridle in Manchester, who I did work experience with back in, back in the day now leads a big program on food security using the skills that she acquired as a cosmologist, as an astrophysicist So I think there’s something about the fact that we’re used to working collaboratively with large data sets and often imaging data. That, that means that we’re, we’re a field that tends to pass on techniques to, to other places plus were I think as a, as a, as a group, has, won’t be obvious from this interview I started with, I think we’re pretty distractible. and so we could be seduced by new problems in, in other fields. And I think that happens to lots of us.

Speaker 3 (00:10:53):
Well, I think so I mentioned the spectral unmixing path stop, but actually you then went back to the digital cameras. Actually it was back in the nineties. I started using my first CCD camera from Right Instruments, which I think was Oxford based at the time. And we liquid nitrogen chilled CTD, tiny 125, 1, 2 pixel, I think it was. Yet again, I always conscious that they came that came from astronomy side and into life sciences to actually to really good advert physics and the funding of physics and astronomy. Some people may argue that what’s the point of understanding the stars when there’s more fundamental things back on earth to solve and yet, so CCD cameras is the algorithms, the things you just highlighted, if the impacts that is that they then benefit so far.

Chris Lintott (00:11:42):
Yeah, I think that’s right. I think, yeah, that, that general argument for blue skies research is a good one. I think we have a very bad track record of predicting what will be useful. 30, 40 years astronomy invariably lays claim to wifi uses algorithms that were developed by Australia radio astronomers. And as you say, CC CCDs and, and all the rest of it. But I think it’s also I think we can be actually, and we share this with some of the, the imaging life sciences as well. I think there are sciences that can be a sort of gateway drug for the public understanding of science as well or for the education. So, so one reason to have astronomers round is, is what I mentioned a minute ago, which is the people have questions for us that people could be drawn into talking about science much more easily in astronomy, but I don’t know if you’re a condensed matter physicist. You know, some of my best friends are condensed matter physics. There’s nothing wrong with being a condensed matter physics, but it is harder to get a conversation going in the pub about your life three steps. Then, you know, we found some new planets, so, or discovered that taking a beautiful image of colliding galaxy. So I think there are sciences that are naturally going to be more in the public eye. And I think those fields have a responsibility to invest in excellent engagement and outreach so that people could be drawn into science as a career or as a hobby or as part of their lives. And so I think there’s also that, that pitch to it as well.

Peter O’Toole (00:13:14):
So I guess that ties nicely onto the, the, the importance of communication of science. As you said, you know, as a challenge, you look up, you can see the night sky, you can be curious to know what’s going on, what creates your, how things are moving. It’s, you know, completely different. And communication’s really important. And I, I, I say I should have done my background reading. So you are now co presenter the Sky at Night, which for those who are not in the UK is the astronomy program that you tune into. And I think almost all children, certainly my age would have watched diet night through, through the ages. And, and it’s, it’s serious. I’m not serious, but it’s, but there is quite heavy content in there at times, but it does. It was always engaging.

Chris Lintott (00:14:03):
Yeah. I think that’s what we’re aiming for. So Scott has various distinctions, but the program started in 1957, which is before the space space entry it started a few months before Sputnik went up the first satellite and it’s every month, which is odd. It used to be every lunar month, which was because it was thought that people were interested in astronomy in the fifties would want to look at the moon. So if you put on a program at the new moon, when the moon is a visible inside, people would come in and watch. And I don’t, it turns out we have a broader audience that the BBC lost track of the lunar months, then sometime in the nineties and it shifted to calendar months so that we take a little break as well. But I think the other distinguishing feature about The Sky at Night is that it’s made more or less on a shoestring budget, which means we kind of get left alone to do, do what we like. So, so we get to produce a very unusual program. I think what we try and do is make sure that everyone learns something from every episode, which means that if we’re making, I dunno we made an episode two months ago about a European space agency, satellite called Gaia, which is mapping the nearest billion stars to us. And I think we probably started, we started the program by saying that the Milky way is a galaxy, that it can take the a hundred billion stars. And some of the people watching will have learned that and be blown away by the idea that there are a hundred billion stars in the galaxy plus or minus a few hundred. There are hundreds of billions of stars in the galaxy. We’re not really sure we have a finished cancer. But we also talked about the fact that the exciting result, if you’re deep in the field is that some of the stars in the galaxy trace a merger between our galaxy and a previous a smaller system that happened 10 billion years ago. That was the most significant event in the history of our galaxy, but no one had suspected had happened. So to try and do both of those things in a program is quite odd. But I think it works. And, and we, we were managing to keep, keep going with a very loyal audience of people who tune into to, to listen to whatever we have to say.

Peter O’Toole (00:16:10):
What are the viewing figures, like now, for it,

Chris Lintott (00:16:14):
Not sure I’m allowed to say because I’m not really a, probably hundreds of thousands of people. What I do know is that we, I was once told we were the cheapest program per viewer on British television which I think you can, you can draw one of two conclusions

Peter O’Toole (00:16:29):
And you’ve done well. Cause you obviously picked up the mantle. Your co-host picked up the mountain from Patrick Moore. I think it was wasn’t it. Who was

Chris Lintott (00:16:37):
That’s right. Who presented it from 1957, till 2012, but I overlap with him. We worked together for, for the last 10 or so of those years. And how was that? Well, he was exactly as he was off screen as he was on screen. So I guess you have an international that Patrick, it was the embodiment of sort of what you draw as an English eccentric, a man of many obsessions and passions and strong opinions but who loved conversation and, and more than anything else. So his favorite thing would be to have a room full of people, preferably people who are interested in astronomy which I had to sit up late at night talking. So, but for a few of the years, towards the end of his time on the program, we made the program at his house and it was like going to summer camp for astronomers. Uh and we had, you know, world-renowned scientists, people who’ve built missions that have gone to Mars would come down and stay. And the producer would spend half of her time trying to get people to go to bed early instead of setting up and talking because we had to film the next day. It was just, it was, it was just great fun. And he was an incredibly if he liked you, he was an incredibly generous man. So when he became less able to travel, this is how I got into the program was the I was a researcher. I was supposed to be behind the scenes, you know helping the production team make sense of the complex stories that we were telling. But he Patrick immediately said, well, you know, we should go to this conference, we should cover it. I can’t go, Chris could do it. And so I started doing little bits and pieces like that and got thrown in front of the camera, which meant that I got to be bad on television and no one gets to be bad on television anymore. You have to be good the first time. And you’re either a star or you’re nothing. Whereas I had this apprenticeship essentially where gradually, I sort of worked out, I think you know, how to interview somebody how to make sure I didn’t, I I’d actually bothered to iron my shirt before going on. Yeah. How to, how to, no, you’re good. You’re good. Let’s just smile type footage that I saw recently, but it’s not great. Yeah. Historic moments like the European space agencies, Huygens landing on Titan that footage will be watched in a hundred years’ time. But all of our wonder is why on earth? I didn’t know how to iron my shirt. But, but the point is I learned presenting as a craft. And, and I think people ask me how to get a career in science television. And the truth is, I don’t know why I was really lucky and stumbled into it via Patrick who had the generosity to say that the program and the stories that we want to tell what the most important thing.

Peter O’Toole (00:19:18):
Now you mentioned late nights, so I’m just gonna move the conversation on a bit. So what, what are your favorite drinks if you’re having a late night?

Chris Lintott (00:19:27):
It depends on mood. So, so I’m often found with a glass of red wine, to be honest, I think red wine, but I, so I’ve got

Peter O’Toole (00:19:35):
A backpack for those who are listening. What is this background of Chris?

Chris Lintott (00:19:40):
It’s the label of one of my favorite wines. So this is a wine called Lisagarboland from California. And I think this is a really good example of astronomy being in the culture in a way that we talked about. So this is a California wine that’s made in the style of French wine. So there’s a bunch of Californians who 30 years ago started to make a wine like making the south of France. Lisagarboland it’s obviously a flying saucers and you can see there’s a saucers about beaming down onto the vineyards. And the reason it’s there is that French wine has a long strict list of rules that you have to, if you want to make wine at a particular place in France, you have to really follow the rules and they tell you what grapes you can use, but also maybe when to harvest, how you can treat the grapes after one of the rules, I think in Bordeaux, but it may be it’s actually Burgundy is that if an alien spacecraft lands in your vineyard, then you cannot, for the next three years, call yourself proper Burgundy wine. You have to be classified. You can only sell this product. So Lisagarboland claim to be the only place in the world that actually guarantees this. So they pay an astronomer in wine to certify that no aliens have intervened with their website. Now that’s not me, but if I listening, I will happily take that job. But I also think it’s a really good example of how you know, astronomy sort of infuses people’s lives and in all sorts of strange places. So, so, so I liked the fact that my subject crops up all over the place. And I, I do, I do like a decent glass of red wine.

Peter O’Toole (00:21:10):
I I’ve never had a glass of it. Is it good? That’s

Chris Lintott (00:21:14):
Excellent. Yeah. You as well, I highly recommended it but you have to open a bottle of that an hour before and just let it decant,

Peter O’Toole (00:21:23):
Actually, our local place in Dorset. They sell it, but haven’t got it in stock at the moment. I did look

Chris Lintott (00:21:28):
Okay. Nice try. Yeah, it’s a bit, I don’t know if we’re doing this on a Friday morning. It’s a bit early for it for a bottle. But, but yeah, I did. That’s when we started doing in the pandemic, when we started doing things from home, I filmed from this study for sky at night, filming myself on a little camera was pretty stressful, but you said became hyper aware of what’s behind you. And I’ve got a couple of, couple of wine boxes that are nice, the sort of wooden crates for various things that I’ve actually got books in now. But people started noticing them and commenting that I was clearly, you know, again, Oxford professor, nice wine, there’s a certain sort of image. And then people were putting out, I’ve got trashy Scifi un underneath. And so it was quite fun watching people try to put these different bits together, and try and try and come up with a person. so they Oxford professor wine bit works, but then cricket and Scifi and various other bits, knocking around confused people.

Peter O’Toole (00:22:23):
I think see see my background is literally as the office was and the wall, the picture wall is actually cause I don’t like I’m useless at putting up pictures. So actually for my wife’s birthday, I think it was, I put up a big board that we can easily put pictures on and have lots of pictures in one place and leave the rest of it a little less cluttered.

Chris Lintott (00:22:45):
Yeah, no, I just have books everywhere, which is a problem that is increasing during, during lockdown. So, so yeah, at some point more shelves are needed.

Peter O’Toole (00:22:54):
Okay. Lisagarboland is also , bit of background, a restaurant in Frasier.

Chris Lintott (00:23:01):
Is it, I didn’t know that I have, I have a friend who’s a big Frasier fan. Who’ll be very disappointed that I didn’t know that. But well, there you go. It’s idea probably linked to the wine, these ideas spread out and, and, and escape.

Peter O’Toole (00:23:18):
Yeah. I think they’ll have known that backstory and just loved the backstory too it just adds the depth and complexity to it as well. So you mentioned the scifi books. So what, so any particular Scifi favorites?

Chris Lintott (00:23:33):
I have all sorts of things that I read. I’d be reading a lot of, sort of, it’s really interesting and go back and read scifi from the fifties and sixties and, and to sort of look at what, what at the time was trying to imagine technologies. So, but I, I think the best book I know which everyone should read is a book called Star Maker by an author called Olaf Stapleton. Who is was an Oxford philosopher in the 1930s and he wrote there very strange books that they’re sort of about a cosmos that shaped by thought by, by people’s imaginations really. And, and there’s a, there’s a sort of grand juror of imagination to it. So that he makes makes the impossible. So it’s not really that they’re not, his books are not about star ships and space operas and battles and Klingons and all the rest of it. They’re about ideas and thinking about the cosmos. So Star Maker is just brilliant and everyone should read it by favorite here’s. There’s a book called Last and First Men, which is a history of the next, I think, 6 billion years. And he has this idea that intelligence evolves and inevitably destroys itself. And then there’s a long period before intelligence rises and fades again. And each time the story is different. So, so he goes through. So for example in one possible scenario in the intelligent beings, create supercomputers to think for them. And then the computers take over before computers decide that actually they need creativity. And so they switch themselves off and wait for the next evolution and another chapter people learn to fly and develop wings and then flying is so much fun. They decide to do nothing else and thus go extinct. And so, so, so last the first slide, but again, it’s about, imagine sitting down to write a book about the next 6 billion years. There’s this sort of mind stretching intelligence to that, that I think is really good. Uand everyone, I recommend Last and First Men, but the first hundred pages is a Marxist analysis of 20th century politics because we ended up killing ourselves in a Nuclear war. So I’d skipped the first a hundred pages unless you’re particularly into 1930s, Marxism. Uand then read the rest

Peter O’Toole (00:25:54):
Politics, evolution, sociology, all put into one where we started today’s needs everything’s in there. It’s quite quite something that’s okay. You mentioned Klingons and everything else. Star wars or star Trek what’s your favorite,

Chris Lintott (00:26:11):
Trek. Definitely. I grew up, I grew up watching Star Trek, both the next generation and the original series. So although I have to say I’m not, I, I went back and rewatched a lot of the next generation and I’m not sure it stood up very well apart from the fact that I think Patrick Stewart is an amazing, amazing actor and I’d watch him in anything, but definitely Trek. And the more astrophysical, the worst really. So I like it when they don’t try and explain the science. So there’s, there’s a great star Trek anecdote, which is somebody wrote and asked Dean Roddenberry who founded it exactly how a Heisenberg compensators in the teleporters worked. And that’s, so if you’re going to teleport, you have a problem with quantum physics because you need to know the precise position of every atom. If you’re going to put transport something and have them turn up the same as they started. So the show knew this invented things called the Heisenberg compensator that fixed this problem. Somebody wrote to gene Roddenberry said, how do they work? And he said, very well, I, I, that’s my kind of scifi. Don’t give me a pseudo scientific explanation. That’s wrong. Just tell me there’s a magic box that does a thing. And then we can get on with the story.

Peter O’Toole (00:27:19):
It’s a bit like the big bang then isn’t it, it happened. Don’t worry about how that happened.

Chris Lintott (00:27:24):
No, yeah, I think so. I’d love to know how the big bang happened. I just don’t know how to put that in the too difficult box right now, but I guess if we’re talking microscopy amongst other things, like you must get distract, there’s all sorts of movies and scifi that, that depend on the view of the very small know Jurassic park or whatever. You must get distracted when that’s not. Right. Right. Do you get implausible uses of microscopes?

Peter O’Toole (00:27:53):
I think the biggest one is forensic things on different programs and stuff. And I think almost every microscopy spare book will be when they look down a light mixtape and they show an electron, oh yeah, I hadn’t even occurred.

Chris Lintott (00:28:11):
Right. Because I thought you were going to say, there’s always the thing in those dramas where they say enhance and the picture gets better instead of applying for a grant for more kit waiting six years, it’s going to get installed.

Peter O’Toole (00:28:25):
Like, software’s really that good yet. Well, no software should be able to help us get there and enhance it as well as it does. If you’ve got still doesn’t understand why we can’t get better. CCTV of actual criminals just merge the images, just deconflict. Good. Great. If we can reconstruct the structure of proteins, surely we construct reconstruct someone’s face off a load of blurry images. I

Chris Lintott (00:28:47):
Want to know that you probably can. Now that’s something, I mean, this is the machine. I mean, that’s a serious machine learning challenge and I suspect people are disturbingly good at face recognition now. But it’s about where we deploy that. But now we’re back into politics. Again,

Peter O’Toole (00:29:03):
You also mentioned machine learning and that I think brings us nicely on to citizen science at Zooniverse, which is, yeah, your career is just unbelievably impactful if that’s a word from the start. And this is really how I got to know about you. And you know, just how I found you inspirational and what you did and how you were helping Martin Jones and Lucy Collinson down at CRICK. I think Lucy even mentioned Etch a Cell as part of Zooniverse actually. If I go through the Zooniverse, I can find that at yourself. Oh gosh, I don’t, I’ll get an older lack of hair. This is so I collaborate quite closely with Lucy and a fundamental problem in life sciences is we can get great images, making sense of them. It’s really difficult getting software to draw lines around objects that we can easily see. It’s really complex because there’s other lines that obviously don’t relate to it, but the software thinks it does. And it sits in science. It’s Zooniverse specifically that is enabling them to take giant strides in this. So I, I don’t know how, I don’t know how well, you know, Etch a Cell

Chris Lintott (00:30:20):
Pretty well. So the story is the story of Zooniverse in a nutshell, is that we had too many galaxies or at least we had images of a million galaxies that we needed to sort out. And this was 2007, something like that. I just arrived as a post-doc in Oxford. And yeah, we, we shown that it meant to, to have people look at the time that leads to that task, people out performed, machine learning. And so taking inspiration from a few other projects that were run elsewhere, we put those images online and ask people to help. Thank you. It’d be a nice small project. My idea was that I go and talk to local. Astronomical societies comes of amateur astronomers around the country. I thought, okay, 12 to 50 people a month. If they go and do 50 galaxies, each, we can sort of have this nice side project. Um the web doesn’t work like that. You either succeed slowly or beyond your wildest dreams. And we were getting 70,000 classifications in our 24 hours after launching 70,000, 80,000 classifications an hour. We’re coming in a day after we launched. And that was the peak, but we kept going and we we quickly run through the images and the data was really good cause we had lots of people look at each image. So that part, the power of this approach is not only the human pattern recognition is very good. So these are naturally tasks that anyone can do. But the, because we have lots of people do each task, you get a sense of accuracy as well, almost immediately after galaxy zoo, we started to get hear from other researchers who wanted to know if our crowd of volunteers could do other tasks. And I’ve already mentioned that astronomers are pretty distractible. Uh and so for that reason, but also because we were sort of fascinated to try and understand why galaxy zoo had work. And as an observational scientist, I thought, well, we need more data. So we started to build other projects too, to try and explore what works in this form of citizen science. So we built projects where we thought the images were really dull. We built projects where the task was harder. We built projects in completely different fields and started to build up what became the Zooniverse. And so after, after a while of sort of just responding to people who wanted to build projects with us, and we started to think about where that systematically about where that was a need for people to look through images. And at that point you hit your world pretty quickly. So we were lucky enough to get some funding. We hired Helen Spiers. Who’s the real driving force behind, Etch a Cell who worked with me here in Oxford and is now with Lucy and Martin at the CRICK Institute and we built this project and I, I don’t know the technical details, but it’s been fascinating to watch our volunteers engage with what’s quite, as you say, quite a difficult task, I think we’re not just saying it’s a spiral galaxy or it’s an elliptical galaxy. We’re not just saying there are 17 penguins in this image, which is our most popular project is counting penguins, but you’ll say, okay, please draw around the cell nucleus also, or one of the other constituents of the cell, but I think the data itself is fascinating. It comes as I’m not going to try and use use terms, but where, where you’re slicing through the cell and you’re getting a three dimensional picture of the nucleus out of the tracings that are provided by the Etch a Cell audience. Um yeah, I did blasted biology in school. I thought that the cell nucleus was a nice round, probably spherical block, right? Because that’s what all the textbooks have. And it still blows my mind that that’s not true. And from Etch a Cell we’ve got this nice three dimensional model that shows structure within that. And I think it’s grist to my biology is complicated mill because it turns out not everything is sphere. And, and, and it’s been a really interesting project, partly because of that difficulty. We’ve had to get machines involved as well. So in the 14 years that we’ve been running, Zooniverse obviously machine learning, driven by Google and Facebook and all the rest has, has improved beyond measure. And so one of the things I’m interested in now is how we best combine human and machine systems. So I begin to sound like a science fiction author at this point, but that sort of hybrid capacity where you can ask machines to do the things they’re good at, but retain the human capacity for dealing with edge cases, complex problems making discoveries and so on that combination what works really, really well and Etch a Cell is a place where we’re on the cutting edge there because having got people to draw around the cell nucleus on the image we can then train a machine to produce a consensus map to take everyone’s efforts and produce the final answer. Um and it’s inspiring actually it’s coming full circle. And some of the astronomy projects I’ve worked on are now taking inspiration from that Etch a Cell approach which the team at CRICK continuing to develop.

Peter O’Toole (00:35:41):
So just expanding further on that future for machine machine learning is taking. So the critical thing here is not one person takes drawings round one nucleus, someone else draws round another nucleus, lots of people draw round the same nucleus to remove that human error, the biases mistakes that it gives you better confidence in there. But I think mark, I think Lucy and Martin both said that there was, they were gobsmacked at just how good amateurs, you know, armchair scientists were that drawing around these objects, such, such a skill to do it, but actually collectively that there are some great people out there that are spending their time and doing it really, really well.

Chris Lintott (00:36:22):
Yeah. I think there’s, there’s a couple of things, sorry, just to, just to say on that, because I think sorry to interrupt, but I think it’s really important that they’re doing it really well because they care. And so one of the things we got wrong in the, when we were setting up that first project was to think that people would be motivated by a pre-existing love of astronomy or a desire to discover a galaxy and actually every time we’ve study or we run surveys of cannabis, volunteers, people take part because they want to help. And they care that the data is being used for scientific purposes. And so taking those motivations, if you want to help and you know that somebody is going to use the data for something real, then you take a lot of time and care and attention. Then of course we have combined people. So that does remove error gets rid of the very occasional bad actor. I think we, we must’ve had a school project cause one of my favorite Etch a Cell samples somebody just wrote, I hate this project, which is lovely. But so you get rid of those. You also get rid of mistakes, but you also get some sense of the inherent fuzziness of the data. So there could be 10 of us. We could all do the same task. And if we disagree slightly that tells us something, maybe the image isn’t clear or maybe there’s some ambiguity that you actually get all of that information back as well.

Peter O’Toole (00:37:44):
I think you need back ground. So beyond that, getting so many datasets will hopefully help machine learning. So that gives you the ground truth data too. So if you just do a computer to draw it, it can’t, it needs to be informed first, right? And you need lots and lots and lots and lots of data for it to learn from. And that’s where citizen science Zooniverse really play and will, I hope will play certainly microscopy as well. Cell tracking just even like microscopy. I’m following cells. It’s incredibly challenging. And you talk to a lot of computer scientists and think, well, this will be quite trivial and easy. It talks to the world’s best computer scientists. And it’s only once they see the data they realize, cause cells has changing size shape. That, actually the characteristics, they go over the top of each other and come out the other side, apart from each other, they look different and it’s, if a human I can work out, which one was which, but actually computers store really struggle. I think, come on, everyone out there, if you are like microscopy life cell, find, find some energy to get this sorted.

Chris Lintott (00:38:55):
Yeah. And we, we we’ve tried to make it easy. So, so we spent some time building projects for people, which was great fun. And then we found probably five years ago now, maybe a little more that we were building more or less the same kind of project again and again and again. So we built tools. So if you people out there have data that would benefit from this sort of crowdsource citizen science approach, and you can go to and there is a tool that it takes about an hour and you can build a project using your own data. And then we submit it to us. We review it and then put it out for our crowd. So research groups who have data, but don’t have any web expertise and don’t want to develop any, can build projects. It’s, it’s rather like creating a blog or something where you click some buttons and the project appears. Um I think you’re right about the complexity of the data that, that helps. And I, I, I think there’s a, and your right, the modern machine learning, particularly deep learning, which is what dominates most of the headlines depends on the size and quality of training sets. So, so, so yeah, so one way to view a citizen science project, like this is the, it can produce a lot of training sets that you can then train fairly standard machine learning with, so for example we have a product called snapshot Serengeti, which has motion sensitive cameras in the Serengeti national park. I’ve now got a pretty good trained giraffe detector because we labeled a hundred thousand images of giraffes and you can feed that into our network and that we can find drugs. Plus they’re quite easy. They kind of distinctive Ostriches are much harder incidentally. Um so, so, so there’s that one way thing, but I think the more interesting question is to say too. So, so in that picture, there’s a sort of idea that at some point you take the training wheels off the machine is fine, and then you just feed your data in and your results come out the other end. And I think that’s possible, we’ve had some projects that have achieved that, but that’s the kind of complex data where you really want to get every bit and byte of information out that you possibly can. I think that that’s a very ambitious goal, as you say. I think all machine learning projects are 80% easy and 20% impossible. I think a lot of the projects I see for your world live in that sort of 20% impossible. So I think a more interesting question for that. Yeah. But the thing is data sets keep growing too. So, so, so there’s this race, so you could say, okay, so I can label currently let’s say 90% of my data with machines that I need people to look at the other 10%. So in five years time, maybe I could label 95% of the data, but the trouble is your data sets tripled in size or quadrupled in size or whatever as well. So I think the thing to do is to accept that we’re always going to need some sort of review and ask how we can make best use of that. So for example, on the galaxy zoo project where we started, if you go to the site, now we have an advanced neural network built by my just graduated PhD student, Mike Walmsley, that’s running in the background and analyzing the galaxies and the site will show you not just the things that the machine is most confused by, but the things which the machine that Mike built predicts, which galaxies will improve it further. So it will show you the galaxies where you labeling it will most improve the machine performance on the rest of the galaxies. And so you have this nice loop that will always involve a machine and always involve people that that’s running quite happily. I’m also very interested in, I’m sort of on tenterhooks, I’m waiting for, for a grant that I hope I’ll get that I’ve written the which is about the idea of serendipitous discovery. So I think another place where you need people is to be surprised. So it’s very hard to teach a machine to be surprised in the right way. Machine can tell you what’s unusual, but they can’t tell you which of the unusual things are interesting.

Peter O’Toole (00:42:50):
Go into comments. I just on that. And you said, you can get 80%, 20% and 95%, but actually what a machine can’t do is find out, still can’t find out yet. The interesting cells that we don’t know are interesting outliers things that we tend to be biased, what we’re looking for and concentrate and ignore quite a lot of information around it.

Chris Lintott (00:43:12):
Right. I think that’s right. And I think anomaly detection is a big field and machine learning. So outlier detection, because those are often the problematic things. But most anomalies and most this token, you get a very high level, but for most scientific data sets, most anomalies are boring that in astronomy they’re places where a satellite went in front of the field of view, or there’s a bright star, that’s microscopy, I’m guessing it’s a misaligned cell or, you know, the plate didn’t work or what, or, or whatever. What we need, I think from citizen scientists is to be able to identify which of the unusual things are interesting. And I think this will be a big move. I was, I was delighted to work with, I worked with a team at the diamond light source on a separate set of life science projects called science scribbler. Um and we’ve been talking about doing some, some stuff with cryo electron microscopy, where you’re looking at protein structures. And I was fascinated to learn that while people have managed to use templates, to produce training data, to find some of the most common proteins in the cells that they’re looking at most proteins are rare most of the time. And so almost everything in that data set is an anomaly or it’s an outlier. And so this approach of let’s just get a hundred examples of everything and then train the machine, it isn’t going to work there. And we’re going to need to be much more, much smarter about how we sort through that data. So, so I’m hoping to be able to get, get it, get deep into that project in the near future.

Peter O’Toole (00:44:44):
So we’d be Richard Richard Henderson talked about very similar things. Only recently just to give people an idea because it’s all good and well, all these datasets and it needs lots of data. It needs lots to be processed and surely people are competing, but as we’ve heard, you’ve got people interested in astronomy and are passionate about it. There’s people from Lucy side that be interested in cancer and helping cancer research, which is very much Etch a Cells Etch a cells side of things. How do you know how many registered volunteers you currently have across And this is international. This is not just a UK thing. This is maybe international

Chris Lintott (00:45:23):
That’s right. And we were actually trying to do more translations so that we could be more international, we’ve got a couple of million registered volunteers. And to give you an idea of the scale during 2020, they contributed over a hundred million annotations to across all the projects. Yeah, exactly. And the thing is that they’re motivated by helping. So yes, some science is more, as we discussed at the start, some science is more immediately accessible. It does help if your project has penguins on it, people do like penguins. But apart from that what really seems to captivate people, what makes a successful project is engagement by the scientists. So if they, if you can explain why you want people to do something and you’re there to answer questions every so often when they are doing it. And you did, we do see projects developing a loyal following from amongst the existing Zooniverse volunteer based. One of the reasons we created Zooniverse was that with galaxy zoo, as we have that initial success, we got a lot of press. And so people found the site through that buzz. We realized pretty quickly that launching our 20th project or our 200 project or whatever, is it going to generate the same buzz. So we have an audience of citizen science fans who are excited by new projects. There are people on the, on the platform who wants to do every project, for example which, which is quite fun. And I do think that’s sort of the worlds and the data that, that you’re talking about are fascinating and there’s inherent variety. So I think the filter is, are there a set of images that people would get something out of flicking through? So we sometimes called this the poor sod problem. Like we’d like to do this research, but some poor sod would have to look at 10 million images of cells or whatever. And then the second thing is, can you explain in a sentence what the task is? And if those two things are true, people should come and build a, build a project to try it out,

Peter O’Toole (00:47:23):
Just think about the number of pathology sections that need someone to eyeball it. If it’s if the patient’s got cancer or infected, or has an immune disease or something else, the ability for that to be with greater certainty than having to go through human eyeballs each time for grading and looking, and again, but then also noticing differences between patients which, which could fundamentally change the way of science in the future. I’m going to move quickly because we’ve talked, I don’t get involved if anyone’s listening, you know, and if it’s not yourself, your children, your parents

Chris Lintott (00:48:03):
Also. Yeah, we have people of all, I know five-year olds have contributed to Zooniverse projects and I know 90 year olds have, so that’s the range. And I think we try and design the projects, not we don’t always treat this, but for the most part from hitting the website to making a contribution should be less than two minutes, because I think the magic of these things as a participant is to know that you’ve done something real. It’s a very different experience from coming to hear a talk or listening to a podcast or choosing to read a scientific article in the paper or whatever. Yeah, I think, I think we promise you that you will be able to help, even if you’ve only got a few minutes to spare. I think that’s why last year during the pandemic, we saw an enormous spike in traffic because for those people who were lucky enough to have more time to spend on things, I know that wasn’t everyone’s case, but that ability to be part of the community that’s helping was really inspiring. And so certainly the messages we got from people showed how, how meaningful this sort of ability to, to help scientists was to them. And as a scientist, that reminds me why I’m doing any of this in the first place. It is a privilege to get, to try and find out about the universe and to do that in the company of 2 million people is really excited. It

Peter O’Toole (00:49:23):
Sounds like one of those board games, you know, age five to 95, how competitive I, I, we need to be on, but how competitive to people get, do people think I want to have you got a group that are almost competing against each other for the most classifications or inputs?

Chris Lintott (00:49:38):
Yeah, it’s interesting. We, we did early on have a leader board and that worked for a few people. We got rid of it, but we’ve done some research into this cause people often suggest that we gamified the project. You know, where are your badges and alerts that tell you that you’ve got to keep up your streak of 10 days or whatever when you put that sort of competition in what’s interesting is it’s very effective. It turns out human beings have really incentivized by, by games and points, scoring and competition. I think you kind of know that as my phone shouts at me to tell me that I haven’t learned any German in the last three months, you know, I I’ve been to, to, to play tennis in the, in the last week or so or whatever. So we’re really incentivized by that, that gamification, but it changes how people think about the projects they start worrying about whether they’re winning, instead of thinking about that participation. So we very deliberately try and discourage that sort of competition because I want people to realize that science is a collective endeavor. We have a project called Planet Hunters where people are literally discovering planets around other stars by looking at graphs, but fun. And in planet hunters the odds of finding anything are pretty low. So we have contributors, who’ve looked at 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 of these graphs and not found a planet, but they’re just as useful as the person who actually finds the thing, because they’re the same bit of information. This isn’t anything stop looking at. It is just as useful as you should take a look at this. And so it is a collective goal. And so we try and set know this week, let’s try and look at a million images or this week let’s try and finish this project. And that, that seems to work quite well. He’s

Peter O’Toole (00:51:18):
Brilliant. You mentioned there before rushing off to play tennis that, so I’ve got that. Would you like to describe this picture?

Chris Lintott (00:51:25):
Well, it’s very sweaty people. Six, five of my closest friends and I all holding rainbow colored misshapen tennis racket. So this is a Hampton court. So I play I call it tennis, but it’s real tennis, which is the old version. So it’s played with a lopsided wooden racket. There’s the home court. So this is my favorite place in the world. That’s behind you now. So this is the Oxford university tennis court and Merchant street, which dates back to the 16th century. It’s the third oldest court in the world. So people have been doing this sport with more or less the same rules and the same equipment in the same place for more than 400 years. And it’s a brilliantly ridiculous game. There are, you get a point if you hit the unicorn, for example that various other bits of the court make bells ring if you hit them and it’s very tactical. So the, the best way to describe it is it’s like playing across between squash and chess in a pinball machine

Peter O’Toole (00:52:27):
And you play it off the, off the side roof as well. It says,

Chris Lintott (00:52:30):
So you serve up, there’s a sloping roof. So, so it’s difficult to describe, but it’s supposed to be the shape of a medieval street. So on the left, you’ve got like a row of shops with sloping roofs. You roll the ball up onto the roof. There are about 40 different serves that people have invented or called things like this, the caterpillar and the giraffe and the railroad and the, the hunting dog, which were all different types of serve. You can do a, and then there’s a net which signs in the middle and you can play forward and across the net. And then there are various other targets. One could aim for I think what, what I love about it apart from the fact that it’s a ridiculous sport and I urge everyone to go and try it. It’s, it’s great. It’s, it’s physical, but it’s also mentally difficult. And so when I’m on the tennis court, I can’t think about anything else. So it’s the one place I could be where I really just concentrate and not think about work, not think about, Zooniverse not think about yeah. And anything else. It’s just, you have to be in the moment on the court. And it’s a game that’s about moving very fast, being very controlled and the people in this picture, by the way, the Oxford unicorn team. So we went to Australia in 2019 to go and play it. So I tried to try to start, 2020 to try and say, to go and play a tournament in Melbourne and flying across the world to play a ridiculous sport was it was great fun. So

Peter O’Toole (00:53:55):
You say, you forget about work. None of these work colleagues

Chris Lintott (00:53:58):
One of those, the third one is Grant Miller. Who’s our project manager for Zooniverse he and I compete for this lovely trophy, which is, this is a small, very cheap. Maybe this is the astrophysics real tennis world championship. So any astronomer who plays real tennis can challenge for this trophy there are only two of us so far. So, so that, yeah, the rest of people I’ve met through met and play through, through, through, through tennis and become great friends with.

Peter O’Toole (00:54:25):
So what other, what other sports are you into?

Chris Lintott (00:54:28):
I, for playing it, tennis is my thing. I, I, I am an enormous football fan. I, I, it’s my link back to where I live is that I’m a Torquey United fan. So I, I grew up in South Devon and I still still follow the team and then I’ve picked up other teams. So I lived in Chicago for a while. I got very interested in the Chicago fire who were a major league soccer team. And w actually the, the culture in Chicago was amazing because these fans had sort of had to create a culture of what it means to be a football or soccer fan in the states. And they sort of nicked bit. So they tailgate, which is what you do before, normally in America, American public games. So people turn up and stand in the car park with their friends for three hours before the match. Um there were tailgates where we didn’t bother to go in because the team were terrible and we were having fun outside, but then they had sort of, you know, there’s a, there’s a Mexican tradition of having a band in the stands. So you find yourself on a football terrace with people playing the trumpet next to you. And then there’s the, there is the English thing of chanting and screaming and so on, but also bits of Italian and Polish influence. So th it was, it was really good fun to, to be part of that and scream and sing and shout a team that have been useless since I started supporting them 10 years. They’ve apparently really good before I got involved. But, but unfortunately I seem to pick only losing teams.

Peter O’Toole (00:56:00):
You started to be Torquey, which I’ll be careful.

Chris Lintott (00:56:03):
You had a good season this season, the playoffs, by the time this comes out, we may have been promoted. So maybe you want to edit in me saying that it’s been a great season and talk to your brilliant, but I I’m afraid it teaches pessimism being a Torquey fan. I mean, this is a team. My, my dad remembers being there. They hold the record for the fastest own goal in professional football. So they scored an own goal, 12 seconds after kickoff. And I think that more or less sums up Torquey my first match, I won’t, I won’t, I, I, I imagined the crossover audience with my first match involved the club being saved from certain doom, by a police dog, running on the pitch of biting one of our players. This is the kind of thing that happens to this ridiculous team. And, and it’s been great to, to, to, to follow along over the years.

Peter O’Toole (00:56:51):
Aye. Aye. Aye. Aye. Because this picture hasn’t turned out. I didn’t check the orientation of the picture first.

Chris Lintott (00:56:57):
Oh, right. Yeah. Yeah. I enjoyed this. This was, this is me getting my vaccine. So this is there’s a picture of me at the Kassam stadium, which is Oxford United home ground. And that was a past where Oxford and Torquey were in the same, same league. So I wore my Torquey kit to get my vaccine. I was desperately hoping that some Oxford fans would notice, but no one said anything, but I thought that was quite a nice link for it sort of bought my worlds together because I have the Oxford, the vaccine that was developed in here in Oxford, at the stadium, in my football kit. And that, that was all very nice. And you know, I tweeted this picture and, and got thanks and thank the team who developed it. And I saw that several of them had seen it. I just, I keep thinking about that fact that, you know, a year and a half ago, they were in a lamp trying to work out what on earth to do. And now here we are with people being vaccinated by something that was developed by a bunch of scientists up the road, it must be an amazing feeling.

Peter O’Toole (00:57:56):
Just, just again, back to life science,

Chris Lintott (00:57:59):
Right? Yeah. Yeah. I didn’t say your problems were unimportant. I just said they were difficult. Yeah.

Peter O’Toole (00:58:04):
And the responsibility that team had, you know, what a profound impact,

Chris Lintott (00:58:09):
Right? Yeah. Well, let’s hope so. And I sort of sitting here and waiting, waiting to see what the sun is going to be like, but let’s hope, hope this is the beginning. Beginning of being able to travel again, what would

Peter O’Toole (00:58:18):
Be too much about that and see how it goes throughout your career. What’s been the most challenging time. You, you only 40, if you’re insane, a young, what, what, what have you found the most challenging time in your career?

Chris Lintott (00:58:35):
Oh, there’ve been a few. I think, I think the hardest problem, which we keep coming up against in waves is to keep stuff going. There there’s always an appetite for new ideas. And we have plenty of them and that’s fun, but we’ve accidentally built a platform that hundreds of research teams use for their own research and everything from life sciences to ecology to, to, to, to my own astronomy. And it’s very hard to, to write a grant proposal that says, this is good. We want to do more of it. And so the, the thing that keeps me up at night is working out how to keep that platform going. And one answer is that we can keep being different. So the new ideas help and the platform has changed immensely over the 14 years. We’re not trying to do now what we were doing in 2007 or 2010 or even 2017. Um but I do feel that there’s this responsibility to keep, keep the thing going and to keep the team together. So we, I should have said that Zooniverse is, is not my production at all. I mentioned Helen, but the other scientists Grant, but there’s a web development team split between my team here in Oxford and the apple planetarium in Chicago. And, and that’s really tough. I think on a personal note, I think that the, the hardest time is just after my PhD, I deliberately come to Oxford to learn stuff. I wanted to move away from some of the astrochemistry I’d been doing, get involved in new problems. And for the first six months I was here, I was pretty sunk. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I didn’t have the knowledge to, to attack the problems that I was supposed to be working on. I had a boss who was very friendly, but at 3:00 PM every day with knock on the door, come into the office and have an idea at me. And so I had a steadily growing list of ideas that I thought I was supposed to be working on. It took me a while to realize he did this to everyone. And that was his way of thinking that the requirement was to have a conversation, but I felt really, really sunk actually. And I got nine months into a two year postdoc and was pretty sure that would be that and then thought, well, I’ve got to do something I don’t care what it is. So I set up this nice side project called galaxy zoo because I could at least spend a couple of weeks building a nice website and getting people to classify galaxies. And at some point I should go back and do the work I was supposed to be employed on for that postdoc, because I haven’t really recovered from that. But yeah, I think anyone who tells you that they can be a researcher or intern, or have science as part of their lives and not have times where they don’t know what they’re doing. Well, I’d like to meet them. Cause that sounds, that sounds rather wonderful. And I’ve never met anyone who’s ever gone through a career without getting really stuck. And that, that, that was mine,

Peter O’Toole (01:01:35):
Which is good to hear. I think it’s good for people to realize it doesn’t go to plan quite often.

Chris Lintott (01:01:43):
Sometimes I think the thing that I took from it was that sometimes the requirement is to do something, not to worry too much about making a choice or thinking about what would be best to do, but do some research, find something out, read something, think about something. And yeah, I occasionally talk to, to early career scientists who trying to worry about, if I write this paper, now, then I can get this fellowship and then I’ll do this. And then by the time I get to a faculty job, I’ll be able to do, and it’s good to think about those things, but in my experience at least the path is much more random. And you’re going to be much more buffeted by, by random events, jobs that open up data that becomes available things you find. And so it’s almost not worth worrying about too many steps ahead. Uh and really it’s about what, what one can get done with what you’ve got in front of you. I really, the only time in this whole interview I’ve actually felt old is when I’m giving advice. Like the only time I’ve thought about my age is I, I sound somewhere in between, in my head. I’m sort of a 20 year old going. Yes. Well, let me tell you kids what it’s like to be as old as 20. And yeah, I think I also coming across something like that eighty year old crusty professor going well in my day, I just worked at it. I did a full ride. So it is being, being involved in science where we don’t know the answers is really tough. It’s really hard. And I, I think it’s okay to say that sometimes. Yeah.

Peter O’Toole (01:03:17):
It’s certainly not a stress free environment that that’s for sure our time has flown and I’ve still got a few more, I’ve got some quick fire questions.

Chris Lintott (01:03:26):
Okay. Let’s try and do them as quick fire shall we. We can, we can do this.

Peter O’Toole (01:03:29):
What’s your favorite item, that you own?

Chris Lintott (01:03:33):
Um I’m not really a a person who, who cares about things really. I will go for this crochet This is a crochet lobster, which has a backstory that I’m not going to tell you, but this, this lobster is excellent

Peter O’Toole (01:03:49):
Okay, What’s your pet hate habits or other

Chris Lintott (01:03:56):
Gosh, these are difficult. I don’t know how are these difficult. I guess I should need celebrities seem to have these planned. I need, I need a list.

Peter O’Toole (01:04:03):
You presented the sky at night. These come on. Hey.

Chris Lintott (01:04:11):
People who assume that they’re being boring. I hate the, you won’t be interested in this, but everyone can be interested in everything. We should start from the assumption that everyone is interested.

Peter O’Toole (01:04:24):
You said you might not be very interesting in this.

Chris Lintott (01:04:27):
Yeah, well, I do it myself. I’m not just saying it’s I don’t have it. It’s not a habit I developed, but I think it’s a natural thing. Isn’t it? It’s like to assume that you’re boring people, but my experience, my log-ins for is people tell you if you’re boring them. So I think we should all be just, just assume that our audience is interested. I think it goes back to the science communication stuff. I think too often we’re filtering. Yeah. What we’re saying to an audience, because we were trying to guess what they’re interested in. Actually people are interested in people and yeah. If you’re being excited about your science, I want to hear about it. Even if I don’t follow the details. And even if I’ve never thought about cell biology or whatever, or protein structure before

Peter O’Toole (01:05:12):
I’ll make these even quicker answers, then Night Owl Night Owl or early bird

Chris Lintott (01:05:16):
Uh both but not the afternoon.

Peter O’Toole (01:05:24):
What’s your favorite food

Chris Lintott (01:05:24):

Peter O’Toole (01:05:24):
What do you hate foodwise

Chris Lintott (01:05:29):
Weirdly milk in coffee milk in coffee. Yeah. I drink black coffee, but any coffee flavored things or anything that’s messed with.

Peter O’Toole (01:05:38):
Favorite drink.

Chris Lintott (01:05:38):
So yeah, I’m dreaming of a decent pint of bitter in a pub because it’s been a, there haven’t been enough of those. So let’s go with that.

Peter O’Toole (01:05:50):
Okay. Favorite movie

Chris Lintott (01:05:53):

Peter O’Toole (01:05:55):
What movie genre do you hate?

Chris Lintott (01:05:57):
Horror. Scary.

Peter O’Toole (01:05:59):
Okay. Fact or fiction reading

Chris Lintott (01:06:04):
Fact, in the morning, fiction in the evening

Peter O’Toole (01:06:07):
Trashy TV program that you secretly like.

Chris Lintott (01:06:12):
I’m not a huge TV person. I watch all of Grey’s anatomy for some reason.

Peter O’Toole (01:06:17):
Favorite item of clothing.

Chris Lintott (01:06:24):
I’ve got one really good shirt, but I’m not allowed to wear on camera because it’s too patterned. It’s it’s like a swirly Paisley thing.

Peter O’Toole (01:06:37):
Oh, that takes me back. Okay. Music genre. What’s your favorite music genre?

Chris Lintott (01:06:42):
Depends on the day of the week and the weather, but the blues.

Peter O’Toole (01:06:47):
Okay. And you sent me finally some pictures, which psychedelic with keyboards. Yeah. And yeah.

Chris Lintott (01:06:56):
So this is, this is the home office of my friend, Steve Pretty. So Steve is an amazing jazz musician. He’s the lead of a band called the Hackney Colliery band, which you should go and listen to. They are brilliant. If you want to hear a modern jazz medley of Nevada’s greatest hits, for example, they’re your people. But they also do other things. So, but Steve and I met doing, doing various things and we we’ve been collaborating on shows where we, I explain astronomy to a jazz audience and he explains jazz to an astronomy audience, possibly satisfying nobody. But that, that I have a very in the early days when we worked the shows now pretty good. But when we started the show starts with Steve walking into the theater, blowing on a conch and through the audience. And then I come in and read some of stapleton them, actually the last stapleton them a piece that I was talking about earlier. Um but yeah, the first time we did that, Steve walked in, blew his concha, this amateur astronomer, who’d come to hear about astronomy web over the top of it, which is great. Anyway the thing that I said, you, I hope you can put a link somewhere is that we discovered a system of planets, which are in resonance. So K 2, 1, 3 8. So the system has five the inner most one for every three times that goes round. The next one goes around twice, probably three times that goes around to start. The next one goes out twice and so on. And so you can Sonify this, Steve took the sonification and producers slightly psychedelic, but mostly mellow, beautiful improvised jazz piece playing with the solar system, which I think is wonderful. And it’s a really nice example of where astronomy can take you the great joy working with everyone, from your friends, at the CRICK to people like Steve, to try and find out about the universe and talk about,

Peter O’Toole (01:08:54):
I’m going to have to ask Bitesize bio if they can actually put just a little end, credits the song in the background, or maybe website

Chris Lintott (01:09:06):
He’s also the house band. He’s running the house band at the Globes production of Midsummer nights dream. If you want to go and see some theater, I’d feel safe going into an outside play.

Peter O’Toole (01:09:17):
You can actually listen to your music. Literally. You’re the sound of space. Cool. Chris, you’ve been great to talk to today. Thank you, yeah. I said it’d be about an hour. I think we just, I think we’ve gone a bit over, but do you know what this has been terrific far from boring?

Chris Lintott (01:09:36):
It feels incredibly self-indulgent to sit and talk about yourself for an hour. So thank you for that.

Peter O’Toole (01:09:42):
Well, think about how many people, not many people can say they’ve inspired 2.3 million armchair scientists, scientists, serious scientists from five to 95 to get involved, to help from astrophysicists to biologist, to ecologists right across the board. Fundamentally inspiring. Absolutely brilliant. So anyway, Chris, thank you very much for today and taking your time to join me and everyone else. Who’s listened. Please do what some of the other podcasts on The Microscopists and that, do you know what this has been brilliant, Chris, thank you very much. Bye.

Chris Lintott (01:10:17):
My Pleasure. Talk to you soon.

Intro/Outro (01:10:20):
Thank you for listening to The Microscopists, a Bitesizebio podcast sponsored by Zeiss microscopy to view all audio and video recordings from this series, please visit


Scroll To Top