Starstruck

Astronomer Bob Mizon is evangelical about preserving the night sky. He tells Marta Clayton about his passion for the stars, falling out of love with the teaching profession and winning an MBE.

“That’s what you get for moaning about rotten lights for 20 years,” jokes Bob Mizon, as he hands me the box containing his MBE medal. “I don’t like the colour of the ribbon but you can’t have everything. Pretty pink – it’s not very butch, is it?,” he says with a chuckle.

Photo of Bob Mizon

Bob Mizon

Dagenham-born Mizon is the national co-ordinator for the British Astronomical Association’s Campaign for Dark Skies, which fights against light pollution. He has also written ‘Light Pollution: Responses and Remedies,’ a book aimed at architects, builders and other professionals to highlight the problems. Thanks to 17 years of campaigning, Mizon’s name was on the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in summer 2010 for his voluntary service to astronomy and the environment.

The 64-year-old is self-effacing about his MBE but clearly looks proud in a photo taken at Windsor Castle with his wife Pam to collect his medal. “I was very surprised indeed and it took my wife some time to convince me (the MBE) wasn’t some sort of spoof,” he says. They make a handsome couple, with his  thick, grey hair and bushy black eye brows and her poise, grace, and bone structure that any super-model would kill for.

Hooked on the stars

Mizon’s fascination with the stars began in his school library when someone put the Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy in the transport section where Mizon was looking at books about ships.   Aged 10, his ambition back then was to become a sailor but he became hooked on astronomy. “I stayed interested in the stars, I read up lots and bought a tiny telescope,” he recalls.

Mizon first learned to read at the age of three, thanks to his father Walter, a shunter at Beckton gas works in London.   Walter understood the importance of learning even though he himself was “a man without much education.” Mizon remembers sitting on his father’s knee, reading out loud from the daily paper so that by the age of five he had a reading ability of a 12-year-old.

Sadly, his father was killed at 45 in a road accident when Mizon was seven years old, something he has never been quite able to come to terms with partly, he explains, because his mother kept him away from the funeral. This, he accepts, was the done thing in the 1950s. Not long ago he returned to the scene of the accident outside Beckton gas works with his two older sisters to hold an unofficial memorial service. “It took us a long time to reconcile ourselves to the fact he wasn’t there any more. He was a very kind and loving father,” he says.

Mizon continued the education his father had begun and after school went on to study French at King’s College London, followed by a post-graduate certificate in education at Goldsmiths. Mizon describes his first teaching experience as “absolutely  horrible” at an inner city school in London, which he prefers not to name.  The pupils rioted, visits from the police were a common sight and on his last day there as a trainee teacher a child was shot in the playground with an air rifle.  This was 1970.

Wangling astronomy into the French curriculum

Deterred by the experience, he took a job as a security guard with Securicor for a year but he was bored. His instinct was that he should teach and he accepted a job as a French teacher at Poole Grammar School in 1971. Before long he “managed to wangle astronomy into the French curriculum.”

It is not difficult to imagine Mizon passing on his enthusiasm for the stars to his pupils and bringing astronomy to life.  Former grammar school boy Matthew Wills recalls a camping trip on which Mizon demonstrated Kepler’s law of planetary motion. “He did this by sticking a wellie in the middle of a field and then he ran around it at different speeds. Here’s a teacher being an idiot, running around in a field full of cow pat, but he never lost his sense of authority, he never demeaned himself,” he says.

Despite his knack of inspiring others, by the early 1990s teaching had begun to lose its allure for Mizon, who felt weighed down by the growing pressure of endless meetings and paperwork, which he blames on a series of “disastrous” education secretaries during the 1980s. “There was a kind of mania for change in education. As soon as you thought you’d got it right and done what the Government wanted you to do, they changed it all.”

Mizar Travelling Planetarium

Mizar Travelling Planetarium

In a disillusioned state, he visited a friend’s inflatable planetarium in the basement of Bristol Exploratory Museum and after the show he made up his mind then and there that he would give up teaching and run a planetarium too. “I didn’t know if it would make me any money, I didn’t know whether I would plunge my family into poverty. It took me some time to pluck up the courage to actually do it, but I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

Bringing the night sky to children

In 1996 he took the plunge and launched the Mizar Travelling Planetarium, which has now brought the night sky to more than 100,000 children. The planetarium is an inflatable dome in which visitors can learn about the stars and planets in a live show presented by Mizon. Children are quite often mesmerised by what they learn.

“There are two things that light up the eyes of little children – dinosaurs and space. That’s it – you’ve got ‘em. They’re big hooks for children in science. I think it’s that they’re both remote and unavailable. You can’t get them back, they’re gone, so far away in time and space that they’re like magic,” he says.

It is not only children who warm to Mizon and his planetarium. Martin Morgan-Taylor, director of the International Dark Sky Association in the US, has known Mizon for 18 year and describes him as a relaxed sort of chap with a sense of humour who gets the job done. “He chips away at a problem and goes about it in a reasoned way. He commands authority by what he says and the way he says it.”

I ask Mizon how he finds the time to fit all his commitments into his life. The question seems to amuse him but his answer is simple. “Get up early, go to bed late,” he retorts.  Bringing up three children has also helped him acclimatise to sleep deprivation. “We got into the habit when the children were small. They used to jump on our bed at six in the morning. I’m quite happy with four hours sleep a night, it doesn’t phase me; it’s just a question of habituation.”

Even though Mizon’s three children are now grown up, with one daughter in London, another in Bristol and a son at university, the house in Wimbourne, Dorset,  has retained the rough and tumble of a busy family home, with books, paperwork and paraphernalia scattered on every available surface.

Mizon laughs when I ask him what he would like to be remembered for. “What, when I’m dead, you mean? On my gravestone or memorial I would like to have ‘Gone to the stars’,” he says. Fitting last words.

(This profile piece was written by Marta Clayton in December 2010 as an assignment submission for an MA in Multi-Media Journalism at Bournemouth University.)

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