Dr David Mannion (PhD), is an astronomer onboard the £300m Viking Jupiter – the line's newest ocean ship.
Mannion – who is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, a teacher, the head of science in an international college and an extremely enthusiastic speaker on all topics to do with astronomy – stepped away from the telescope to share what inspires him to explore the mysteries of the universe, with Telegraph Cruise.
What inspired you to study astronomy?
I was always told by my mum: “Look, I took you outside for the first time late at night when you were about four, and there were these twinkly things in the sky.” Apparently I asked her what they were and she didn’t know, so I spent the next 10-15 years reading every astronomy book there was in the library and that was the start.
I did my O Level astronomy very early – I took the exam at 14 instead of 16 – and got an A, so really astronomy has always just been a calling. And of course in the sixties, when I was growing up, there were rockets galore – Mercury, Gemini, Apollo – landing on the moon. It was a natural progression, I suppose, to think I could work in astronomy.
You’re also a physics teacher. Can you explain, in layman terms, how physics and astronomy work together?
I earned a doctorate but realised I was not in the top one percent (and I am very competitive) so went into teaching for 31 years – but the very, very best people carry on and become lecturers and that sort of thing. They are the very best.
Physics is what can be done in experiment on Earth and then you take that knowledge and say, what goes on in stars? Astronomy is the observations of extreme events in the universe and we base our knowledge on what we do on Earth. Physics is what we do on Earth in a lab, and astronomy is extrapolating to the extremes of the universe itself.
What attracted you to a life at sea?
My role onboard Viking Jupiter is a special position that they have only just invented, I think because of their planetarium. Before last year, the only ship with a planetarium was Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. So Viking has taken an idea from Cunard and really built it into their ships – Orion and Jupiter – and gone the distance by getting an astronomer like myself (although there are also many others, including Howard Parkin who wrote the on-board shows).
With Cunard, I am one of about 12 astronomers from the Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (FRAS) that they use. But Viking is carving out a special niche: there’s a telescope on deck nine from which I can show guests the sun spots.
The show you’ll experience depends on where you are on Earth, and the time of year. The planetarium shows are geared to what is happening in the night sky above our heads tonight. A lot of other shows are prepared and while they might be interesting, it’s really like turning into BBC Four and just watching a documentary like Horizons. There’s nobody that's live or to talk to – at least it’s possible to speak to me and that’s the great fun.
I get to do what I love and, as an added bonus, every day I wake up and open the curtains and there’s a completely new city to appreciate.
Tell us a bit about Viking Jupiter’s planetarium. Does it differ from Viking Orion’s planetarium?
Actually it’s exactly the same model – the same sized dome that’s sufficient for 26 passengers. We run 12 shows in the planetarium, depending on where you are in the world. They have all been made by Howard Parkin – he’s the top dog – and last around 20 minutes. I'm able to stop the show at any moment and talk in more depth which is something I really enjoy.
An astronomy lecture is more than merely learning where stars are, right?
Of course! In the planetarium you’re exploring the universe, seeing stars that have actually blown up like a supernova… and realising how you fit into the universe. When you know where you are in the universe, it makes us realise how small we really are.
What do you love most about being an astronomer?
Simply put, it fires your imagination. Think about a star blowing up – about the millions of fuel burnt in one second. It’s the sheer imagination on what goes on out there. It’s just jaw dropping.
Do you have a favorite planet/constellation? If so, what and why?
I think of all the constellations, it has to be Orion. I did my PhD on Orion the Hunter so I have a soft spot for this constellation.
What’s a common misconception about astronomy?
For some reason people think that the North Pole is the brightest star in the sky, but it’s not – I’m guessing it’s about the 19th or 20th brightest. That misconception was obviously started by somebody awful, but The Telegraph can stop that!
Prior to joining Jupiter, had you been on a cruise?
Yes. I had been on 11 cruises prior to joining Jupiter. My very first cruise was on board P&O’s Oriana back in 2010.
What are your favourite ports of call and why?
Montenegro a little-visited country that – for travellers – is a bit like Croatia in miniature, stands out. As does Cuba and its charismatic capital, Havana. They say travel broadens the mind and when you actually physically see the decay of 50 years of blockade by Americans...
Finally Poland, particularly Gdansk. This was where the Second World War started but they haverestored the old city to its former glory and it is absolutely beautiful. It’s a bargain destination too: I bought three bottles of Polish beer for eight Euros.
Where’s home when you’re not on-board Jupiter?
When I am not at sea, I live in the historic city of Canterbury – where Thomas Becket was brutally murdered because of the King's orders. It’s a lovely medieval city.
What would you say to our readers who aren’t sure whether a cruise is for them?
Keep an open mind. There are beautiful sunrises and sunsets, different ports to explore, an incredible spa and oh, the food! I’ve been to some very good restaurants in London but they can’t compete with the food you eat on a cruise ship every single day.
Then there’s the crew who are always smiling and go out of their way to make your cruise memorable for all the right reasons. Honestly if you want five star treatment, then do try a cruise. It’s a real feast for all the senses.
Lastly, if you could invite one person onto Jupiter and into the planetarium, who would it be and why?
That would be Lord Martin Rees: he’s a great astronomer but, more than that, he manages to straddle science, politics and literature with ease. Lord Rees is one of the 23 holders of the Order of Merit, an award personally made by the Queen. I’d invite him to dinner too.