He’s seen more of the solar system than most of us but the places that rock the English physicist’s world are right here on the pale blue dot. As told to Di Webster.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
2009: Ethiopia lies in East Africa’s Great Rift Valley, where humans first evolved – it’s the origin of humanity. When you’re there, you can almost sense the ghosts behind you; an unbroken line of ancestors stretching back to the birth of our species 200,000 years ago. It’s a beautiful feeling.
The capital, Addis Ababa, is a typical big African city, full of people and markets. And the nightclubs and bars are so vibrant. At one I visited, they played a piece of music from a region of Ethiopia and a table of people got up and did one of their traditional dances. Then they played music from another region and another table got up. It reminded me of what we do with football [in the United Kingdom]. There’s this celebration of different cultures and I love it.
2014: This archipelago is as far north as you can go in terms of civil aviation; you can’t get any closer to the North Pole. I was there in August when the sun doesn’t rise and set; it just goes around the horizon so you get this bizarre sense that you’re on top of the world. Then in winter, it’s 24 hours of darkness.
There are more polar bears than people and when the wind blows from the Arctic, it’s quite cold. The bears can come into town so it’s pretty wild but there are some fantastic restaurants and a wonderful hotel. One of the great wine cellars of Northern Europe is at a restaurant there and it’s duty-free; the whole island [Spitsbergen] is tax-free.
You’ve got to be unusual to spend your time in 24 hours of darkness and 24 hours of light but that’s the way people live there.
Coonabarabran, New South Wales
2017: If you live in Sydney, you might not know that you have one of the world’s best observatories, Siding Spring, about six hours’ drive away. We filmed Stargazing Live there this year for the ABC.
Siding Spring Observatory has some of the greatest telescopes on Earth. Colour photography of the universe – the beautiful pictures I grew up with in the 1980s – was pioneered by the observatory’s Anglo-Australian Telescope. You forget that before the ’80s we couldn’t do those colour pictures.
It’s an utterly spectacular place. To get there, you can go across and through the Blue Mountains, the last big range before Australia becomes flat in the middle. The observatory is on an extinct supervolcano that rises out of the plain. This great mountain is flat, which is why the telescope is there. You can look through the telescopes. It’s brilliant. ￼
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