DOM: Dr. John Smaje

Welcome to Stardust@home’s Duster of the Month! Each month we will highlight one of the many Stardust@home volunteers (or “Dusters”) in our blog. The questions asked are designed to enlighten us about the very important human aspects and motivations of the project’s most valuable asset. Each month there will also be a new question from a random member of the science team. If you would like to be a featured Duster of the Month, please send an email to

This Month’s Featured Duster is

Dr. John Smaje


1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself (but please also note questions to come):

I was born in London (UK)  two years after the end of WW2, at 12.30pm – “just in time for lunch,” as my mother boasted. My elder brother trained as a doctor, my sister as a nurse, so obviously my earliest ambition – sadly unfulfilled – was to be their ambulance driver. I did however follow them into medicine, and after a period in academic research with the Medical Research Council to gain my PhD, I pursued a career in Clinical Neurophysiology (investigating patients’ brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerve and muscle disorders). I was appointed as the first full-time NHS consultant in the specialism in the NW region of England 30 years ago, and been elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, but am now retired.

Personal: two marriages, two divorces, two wonderful grown-up children and, at one stage, two chickens.

Hobbies (besides science): classical music – especially baroque and contemporary, computer programming, micro-brewery real ales. Once had a private pilot’s licence, but had to let it lapse after scaring the local birds once too often.

2. What part of the world do you currently live?

West Didsbury district of Manchester, UK (not many miles from the Jodrell Bank radio telescope).

3. Have you always had an interest in science?

Yes, but not simply because of the endless wonders and fascination science reveals about the universe and nature, though for sure, as an artist friend put it, science has all the best pictures.

Although I was brought up a Baptist, I never quite got the hang of ‘faith’ in a 2000-yr old mythology, especially as my prayers never seemed to be answered – or perhaps because God’s answer in my case was always ‘No’! Instead, I found the discipline of logical reasoning of value in all walks of life, as I first experienced with a rush of excitement when aged 8-ish after carefully looking at some railway points (turn-outs) and working out for myself how they actually did their job, so that I could make some myself out of Meccano.

My interest in astronomy also started early, when a friend’s father who was Professor of Astronomy at London University  showed us Jupiter and explained how its spectrum could tell us about its composition even though it was over 400 million miles away –  a true miracle it seemed to me.

4. Why do you dust?

As a Manchester Community Guardian I do a lot of litter picking – often a cold and dirty job, so helping spot and clear up some of that pesky cosmic dust from the comfort of my chair serves as light relief. Seriously, I enjoy playing my own little part in this pioneering project.

5. Do you have any tips or suggestions on dusting technique that you would like to share?

Use a high screen magnification. Take your time to examine all the image in a systematic manner – at the very least in quadrants – including the edges. Make depth judgements by repeatedly scanning up and down the relevant section of the horizontal bars. Learn from your mistakes

6. Are you involved in any other “citizen science” projects?

Not at present, but used to have SETI@Home and tried, but was soon bored by, Galaxy Zoo.

7. What is your overall life philosophy, or are there words you like to live by?

I’m not one for maxims, but would consider myself a logical pragmatist with a moral conscience. Nevertheless, I rather admire the orchestral conductor Sir Thomas Beecham when he advised that we should all “try everything once, with the exception of Incest and Morris Dancing”!

8. What have you seen, heard, or done that has most amazed you?

Husky dog-sledding at Christmas in northern Norway at 2.30 in the afternoon, in total darkness other than for a few oil lamps, the stars and aurora borealis for illumination.

9. What about you surprises people the most?

That I’m still alive probably, what with all the real ales and having tried everything except…

10. What current scientific investigations are you most excited about right now and why? (the Stardust@home team question of the month)

Every week there’s something to get excited about in New Scientist or Scientific American. I find the on-going developments in quantum physics particularly intriguing (most of which I don’t really understand to be honest). Why? Because it is a serious attempt to go to the root of reality, and a clear demonstration of  the essence of science, namely constant revision and refinement of its own tenets in the light of hard-sought evidence.