Spotlight On: Dr. Mike Shaw
“Spotlight On” is our way of highlighting important work done by those who are often overlooked. In a world filled with celebrity tat and the sensationalism surrounding politics, these are the people who truly keep up us on track. You’ll often find them behind the scenes, working to spread awareness, educate others or simply being amazing humans. Why are we shining a spotlight on them? Because they have interesting, thought-provoking things to say, which people should hear. They have the know-how – and we have the technology.
First up in this series is astrophysicist, teacher and dark sky ambassador, Mike Shaw. Oh, and when he manages to get a break from giving being a soft-spoken badass, he’s helping people learn astrophotography. He even gives free webinars, every month, that anyone can sign up for. Questions are encouraged and answers are easy to understand – so we wholeheartedly recommend those.
Full disclosure. Mike Shaw and I have been speaking for over a year, after I used his vast knowledge for quotes on an article I was writing. Becoming friends with your sources isn’t usually the norm – but his energy was infectious and the information seemingly bottomless. Frankly, I knew we had to showcase all of the above to the world. With that in mind, we jump straight into talking about how he engages students of all ages, from all backgrounds.
‘Honestly, the way to get anyone into what you’re teaching is the environment. If someone exhibits an interest, the receiving end is what has to change to meet those interests. If the reception is hostile, they’ll soon lose that.’ He tells me, going on to say ‘it’s about making it fun. It’s like that Oprah saying; even if they don’t remember what you say, they’ll remember how they felt.’
Working as a rocket scientist, an applied physics research scientist, a professor at university and everything in between, he tells me that photography was always in the background. ‘I came from a family of photographers – hobby photographers. In every family photo, we always had a camera,’ he explains. ‘About ten years ago, I went on a camping trip by myself. I was prepping a physics class and was contemplating life. Then this guy appears on horseback and – all of a sudden – I realised there was this great photo opportunity. I had a surge of adrenaline and took the photo – and the guy on the horse asked me where he could buy it.’
This was his *ding* moment (as I like to call them). That spike that comes as an epiphany, despite there being an underlying current spanning his entire life, up until that moment. Mike goes on to explain how he went home, set up a website and began selling his photos.
Of course, with such a vast array of teaching experience behind him (he was a post-doctoral researcher at Cambridge University, for a start), it didn’t take long for him to combine the two. He now offers workshops, both online and in person. Although the online exploration has been hastened somewhat by Covid.
‘We’re all an amalgam of our paths,’ he says, ‘it was a winding path – like for many of us – but I’m absolutely having a blast’. It’s interesting, I tell him, that his background is so scientific. Most photographers have an artistic setting from which they emerge. For Mike Shaw, while the family element clearly played a part, it’s nice to see someone who had been placed on a path that follows academia. Then choosing to use this in his photography and his business. It is, to be rather logical about it, his unique selling point.
‘What I’ve come to realise is that, across all the walks of life, there are some really smart people.’ Laughing at my comments, he adds ‘I love learning from people who are different from myself. I think that’s the best way to learn. One of the great things about the scientific community is that it is, inherently, a global community.’
He tells me that he’s aware of how fortunate he’s been to be able to explore so many different areas in his life. From going on trips around the world, to meeting so many different folks. ‘Any time you have a life change, it’s either a “push” or a “pull”. You’re either pushed out of something – and suddenly you need to adapt. Or, if you’re quite happy and fortunate, you can be pulled into something new. Something even better.’
It’s the openness and ability to communicate with anyone, at any level, that makes Dr Shaw a good person to know. Then there’s the fact that, once you get to know a guy like Mike, you quickly pick up on the fact that you want a friend like this in your circle. So, how has he noticed the world changing, in terms of speaking to other people, now that everything is online?
‘I think our ability to communicate is actually being enhanced. Because we’re now able to see how others communicate through social media. So, people are now able to get the best practice for the medium.’ In particular, he points to TikTok – the popular app which is being utilised by younger generations. ‘There are so many people that are so effective at communicating – I’m not one of them – but they’re now able to communicate more broadly than older generations, because of these different mediums.’
One experience he can facilitate with others, however, is his love of the night sky. In particular, those who come down to his workshops. As often as he can, in dark sky areas, he likes to get everyone to lie down together – and look up. ‘It feels like you’re in space and that experience is so profound,’ he excitedly explains, ‘that connection to the night sky is such a unique experience and I love to share that with people.’
He goes on to reiterate how lucky he has been through his life. His family – now also made up of his wife and two kids – have been steadfast in their support of him. Friends have stayed with him for years, and anyone who went their own way… well, they went their own way. Those who have been around, however, have given him the courage to continuously follow whatever hopes and dreams he may land on.
Hearing him speak, it seems as though Mike is fearless in his pursuit of what dreams may come. Though he is quick to remind me that this freedom does always come with a degree of terror. ‘You can only partition yourself off to a certain degree – and that’s all you have to give.’ He says, ‘So, you have to be careful with where you divide your time.’
When it comes to working for himself, however, he’s never thought about stopping and returning to what is, traditionally, a more stable job. ‘Economics are a great driver,’ Mike observes, ‘and the last year, with the pandemic, has been a major stressor. Most of my workshops are in person, so seeing them all fall away like dominos was pretty rough. But it’s all about adapting.’
And herein lies the key point. Like all successful people I’ve been lucky enough to speak with, Mike has changed through necessity, to meet the needs of the change itself. This is the main point that everyone – regardless of career – should consider; you can’t get the perfect shot if you’re not out there taking the photograph. For Shaw, that means taking his workshops online, creating new products and widening his reach.
Naturally, however, all of the good things that come with having a global community also come with some downfalls. ‘You have to learn not to take rejection personally. Some things work and some things don’t. You’ve gotta learn how to just let that stuff run off your back – otherwise, you’re giving someone control over you. And you don’t want to do that!’
Then, of course, there are those who have a more proactive way of playing with you, emotionally and physically. When I ask what has surprised Mike the most in his career, his answer comes quickly. ‘How reprehensible people can be,’ he responds, taking me by surprise. ‘Untrustworthy would be the best word. Professionally untrustworthy, that is.’ And he tells me the tale of how his ideas have been ripped off by colleagues – and how little was done in response to this.
‘Spending dozens upon dozens of hours putting in the work – putting things together. Ready to go for multi-million-dollar projects. You’re ready to pitch against other companies. And then it’s the guy from down the hall who comes in and rehashes your work.’ But, of course, it’s not just that which stings. It’s the lack of repercussions from above, or those who you expect to have your back. As someone who has always had a strong sense of what is fair and just – and a belief that, individually, people are inherently good – I feel the pain that comes from meeting those who simply aren’t decent to each other, to my core.
The misconceptions that come with the work don’t help. Whether that’s a judge who just didn’t understand the principles behind a piece – or how everybody assumes that photographic work is made up entirely of a simple point and shoot system.
‘So many people want to reproduce the work that you do. So, they ask how it was managed. But when they try, they can’t because they need to practice.’ After all, we’ve all been there. Wanting to take that picture of the moon – but our phones can only capture a blown-out and/or blurry dot. Capturing the magic that comes with the night? Well, it all comes down to knowing the technology you’re working with.
That’s not to say that you can’t start at pretty much any level. One such way someone without any knowledge of astrophotography can get started, is by requesting help from Mike, himself. He’s now offering a service in which he does all of the calculations for you. One which I have no doubt will be popular. Just let him know what tech you have, and he’ll provide you with a plan to follow. Everything from the camera settings to the best location in which to shoot your shot.
Even better – for those who aren’t keen on spending the night outside – there’s also Slooh. Mike works with the company, producing quests that allow anyone to learn through activities. But, of course – in typical Mike Shaw fashion – that’s not all the website offers.
‘Slooh is great because it allows people to take control of their telescopes,’ he says, ‘You can essentially hire these telescopes for five minutes and take pictures of the Lagoon Nebula. Or the M25 star cluster. Or anything you want.’ Suddenly becoming excited, he sits up a little straighter and begins gesticulating, adding ‘But the number one thing that I love about Slooh is the community! It’s a dynamic, active site that has its regulars – and they’re all over the world.’
As well as this, you can also find Dr Shaw doing important work as a Dark Sky Delegate. For those who don’t know, the International Dark-Sky Association does vital work in reducing the level of light pollution across the world. Preserving dark skies is something Mike is incredibly passionate about – and not just because his business relies on them. Dark skies affect almost every ecosystem, including our own. And human-generated light is the sole cause of light pollution.
When I ask Mike about his involvement with IDA, he can’t help but become animated as he responds. ‘Light pollution is that unnatural glow we see surrounding cities and towns,’ he explains, ‘It really interferes with human health, as well as bird migrations and insects. Even trees and plant life is affected. It’s so important and it’s such a shame that more people aren’t aware of it – because that’s what it comes down to. It’s purely a lack of awareness.’
He takes a moment to go through some studies with me, regarding the effect of blue light on the world, before adding ‘but people can’t care about something they don’t know about. My hope is that, through my art and my astrophotography, people can see what they’re missing.’
No matter what he’s doing – whether it’s his work as host of the Aurora Summit, being a dark sky delegate or teaching classes – it’s his genuine passion for what he does that makes Mike Shaw one of the most fascinating people you could hope spend an hour or two with. The good news, of course, is that you can support Mike in his work. By purchasing a book, or even expanding your own sense of wonder by going on one of his field workshops.
In terms of my own time with him? Well, unfortunately, that had to come to a close at some point. Keep an eye on our future articles, though. We’ve no doubt that he’ll be popping in from time to time to shine some light on our science and travel sections. For now, it’s time to turn the spotlight off – gotta keep those dark skies clear, after all.