Each of us is a protagonist in the grand stage of life. This life passes through various physical spaces such as homes, schools, workplaces, and so on. A myriad of events that take place in these spaces happen on a celestial body called Earth, one of the many bodies in our solar system. In this regard, we sometimes feel that we are very small beings among all of the energy and life of the universe. This time, an SMT reporter met with astronomy writer Lee Joo-won, who showed us that the vast universe is a warm world inhabited by humans.
Please tell us about yourself before the interview.
Hello, my name is Lee Joo-won. I majored in astronomy and have been working in astronomy education and content production at a planetarium and a children's astronomy education company. Also, I published an astronomy essay, The Constellations. Now I'm down on Jeju Island, writing an astronomy textbook, and I have a variety of other experiences, such as farming with my parents, writing, and giving career lectures to high school students.
It's rare for a university to have an astronomy department, and we think a lot of people are unfamiliar with it. Can you explain astronomy to our readers?
When people think of the astronomy major, they think of "getting a telescope and going out to look at the stars." However, I never looked at the stars in class, and I spent a lot of time studying math and coding. This is because astronomy is about uncovering the nature of celestial bodies, so it's not just about observing them. We analyze the data we get from observations, and based on that, we create computer simulations of the universe and compare them to the currently observed universe or make predictions. So, unfortunately, when I was in university, there were a lot of students who didn't know this, so they became disillusioned and switched from astronomy to other majors or dropped out.
Astronomy often feels distant from people's lives because it centers on studying the vastness of the universe. How does this astronomy research relate to human life?
I think astronomy is a discipline that has been around for the history of mankind, so it's closely related to human life. The earliest humans must have looked at the sky to satisfy their curiosity and find their own answers, and they drew pictures and created stories, which influenced art and culture. Therefore, advances in astronomy affect our daily lives. For example, the process of nuclear fusion was discovered while trying to figure out why stars glow for so long, and its applications led to nuclear bombs and nuclear power plants. Also, NASA is working on ways to live on the moon and Mars, and these findings can be applied to people living in harsh conditions on Earth. So, I think astronomy is closer to us than we realize.
You completed a combined master's and doctoral program in astronomy in graduate school. What made you fall in the study of astronomy so deeply?
When I was in high school, I dreamed of becoming an astronomer, so I decided to major in astronomy. At that time, I thought a lot about choosing this path because I was the type of person who couldn't do something for a long time and lost interest easily. After much deliberation, I decided to pursue astronomy because I grew up with starry skies in my hometown of Jeju Island, and I thought I would never get tired of doing something related to it. Even when I went to university, all I knew was that I wanted to be an astronomer, so I went straight to graduate school after graduation.
What were some of the challenges you faced in studying astronomy in graduate school, and how did you overcome them?
I went to graduate school and felt like I knew so little that I doubted my university education, and it took me weeks to read a single paper. Once, I was lucky enough to do a poster presentation at an international conference six months into grad school, but I was terrified. I wandered around for about six months, found my own answer to why I love astronomy, and got back to work. I worked so hard that I won an award from the Korean Astronomical Society, became the president of the Young Astronomers of Korea, and gave a presentation on female graduate students in astronomy at an international conference. Although I didn't choose the path of an astronomer, I don't regret the time I spent in graduate school because I learned how to control my mind and how to do what I love for a long time.
You worked at a planetarium after completing graduate school, so we want to know what kind of research or projects you did there.
The planetarium gives basic astronomy lectures and provides opportunities for astronomical observations to make astronomy easy and fun for people. Although it was on a small scale, it was impressive to see that the local government recognized the need for astronomy education. Also, seeing the curious eyes of people or children enjoying astronomy made me feel proud and like I had made it. While working on these public astronomy projects, I memorized constellations and star names, and read a lot of Greco-Roman mythology, and it broadened my knowledge.
You worked for a children's astronomy education company (Astrocamp) and created astronomy content. Can you tell us about the content you created and experiences in creating the content at the time?
When regular classes were suspended indefinitely due to Covid-19, the idea of making videos came up, so I undertook the task of making lecture videos for children. I had never made a video before, so my initial attempts were crude and I was criticized by other employees, but I think it was interesting that the more I made them, the better I did. After classes resumed, I was also in charge of making lectures for children on an online lecture platform. I wrote an astronomy column, created a book about MBTI tests related to constellations, and made constellation tattoo stickers to sell on Tumblr. Content creation is often neglected because it doesn't bring immediate financial benefits to the company, but I think it's more important to get people interested in astronomy through such content.
You have published an astronomy essay, The Constellations, which seems different from existing informational books about space in that it interweaves astronomical knowledge with anecdotes from your life. What inspired you to write this book?
A publishing company representative who had read my self-published book suggested that I write an essay, and since I love literature so much, I was eager to do so. At the time, there were many books about astronomy, but no astronomy essays, so I wanted to write something like Hope Jahren's Lab Girl, a science essay that intertwines the life of plants with her life as a scientist and author. Also, I had decided to try studying again, after I realized that the universe and people are similar, so I wanted to convey my feelings to others. Finally, I wanted to correct some misconceptions that astronomers are always looking through a telescope and observing the stars.
What was the message you wanted to convey to readers through the story of the universe, based on the insights into your personal life?
Someone once told me that they like the universe because it is completely alien to human history, but I like astronomy because it resembles humans, and that makes the difficult universe feel warm. It is natural for humans to resemble the universe when you think that humans are part of it. In other words, knowing the universe is like looking into a human being, and I wanted to say in the book that it's more important to know that we are part of that universe, and that the universe is not far away, than it is to talk about relativity, black holes, quantum mechanics, and all these hard concepts.
You currently live in your hometown of Jeju Island, where you give career-related lectures at high schools. Please let us know what inspired you to start giving lectures.
When I came back to Jeju, I wanted to give astronomy lectures at schools and libraries as a volunteer service, but the schools were already fully-booked for the year, and it's not easy for an individual to get a chance. Then, an opportunity came up to teach high school career classes for a semester, and I thought that my various experiences and astronomy stories could be helpful to students. Now, I'm teaching career classes at two schools, and from next year, I am considering various possibilities like giving astronomy lectures, or setting up an education company.
In addition to astronomy, you've been farming on Jeju Island and writing a series called "Twelve Months in the Life of a Jeju Farmer Family." Please tell us about this content and your life on Jeju.
My parents are farmers, so I was naturally interested in food, and when I moved down there, I started helping them. I had helped out when I was younger, but this is the first time I've really done hard farming work, so I've been recording photos and videos of interesting things. I loved Karel Čapek's prose book The Gardener's Year, and wanted to write something like that, so I'm currently documenting my experiences living and working in the countryside on the platform, Brunchstory. I feel less isolated now that I can drive and make my own way around, but when I was younger, I wanted to leave because patience is a virtue on Jeju when waiting a long time for a bus or a delivery. Also, you have to wait for the morning to do anything because everywhere is dark and quiet from early evening. On the other hand, there is more time than in the city, and I think the key to living on Jeju is how you use that time.
What new goals do you hope to accomplish in the future?
The reason I decided to go down to Jeju in the first place was because of my father's health, and I thought it would be more valuable to spend time with my family. Now that I'm here, I feel like I want to provide different experiences for the children of the island. I want to provide them with a space and time where they can touch the soil during the day and see the stars at night, along with local development. My ultimate goal in life is to be a delightful grandmother, and I'm going to do body profile photoshoots, learn to dance, and tell my kids about the universe. Everything I do now is a buildup to that goal.
Finally, do you have any advice for Sookmyungians who want to go into diverse fields?
The universe wasn't always as vast as it is now. After the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, it was constantly changing, creating elements, stars and galaxies, and Earth with your life. Even if you're not what you want to be right now, if you see and experience a lot of things in the world and build your own strengths, you'll be better than you ever imagined. I hope that you travel a lot and learn a lot of new things. There's no such thing as a wasted experience! Hope to see you somewhere in the universe as cool grandmothers with me.
- Kyung Hee Univ., (B.A.) Department of Astronomy & Space Science (2013)
- Kyung Hee Graduate School., (Integrated M.A. with PhD) School of Space Research (2016)
- Bucheon Astronomical Science Museum Researcher and Team Leader (2018 ~ 2020)
- Astrocamp Content Team Researcher (2020 ~ 2023)
- Getting Used to Being Alone (published 2019, 2023)
- The Constellations (published 2021)