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Or, how a Greek girl became a planetologist


I come from a country where people look up at the sky quite often, especially at nighttime. And from ages lost in time, they usually try to make sense of what they see. How Aristarchus invented the heliocentric solar system, how Eratosthenes proved the Earth was round and discovered the distance to the moon and how Anaximander had the Universe all structured out were my bedtime stories. And of course, I was very close to the sky myself. Not only because my name gave me rights to an Olympian abode, but also because in my family, except for my mother, we were all a little nuts about the sky: my father and brother are both in the Greek Air Force.

And I? I wanted to go higher, I wanted to be an astronaut. It wasn’t being a girl that stopped me, it never has. It was being diagnosed with severe myopia (short-sightedness) and realizing that I’d have to train in the challenging military way where the toughest part for me was getting up early in the morning… No way- I’m a night owl.

So, when I collided with books by Isaac Asimov (oh, the Foundation Series…) and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series on TV, a new approach occurred to me (a girl has to adapt to situation changes). I could be an astronomer. I was inspired by Carl’s description of the Universe, I never missed an episode of Star Trek™ or ‘Lost in Space’ and – I was hooked. My family sort of tried to laugh me out of it. An uncle suggested that I should perhaps think of becoming an astrologer (much more money in that business). An aunt said she had a job for me in a bank (bright girl like you – you’ll catch yourself a husband in a jiffy!). I remained unmoved and unmovable. I was going away to do astronomy, the Greek Sun was not enough for me, I wanted to be where the action was and where space missions were being developed. My father finally cut me a deal: he’d let me go “do my space hobby” in France (not the US, no, no – too far away for a Greek girl of 18) if I promised to study (simultaneously) English Literature, the diploma that would be providing my real bread-and-butter some day. And (just to make doubly sure I didn’t stray far with all this free time on my hands (!?) , the deal stipulated that I had to pass all the exams in June (no second chances in September), go to Greece for three full summer months and return for the next academic year all clean, nice and rested, with my suitcase full of feta cheese and keftédes (meatballs).

So I did. I got two Masters degrees and started two Ph.D.’s with a lot of unconscious enthusiasm . I had about 250 pages of my thesis on English Horror Literature (big fan of Stephen King….) written before I finally had to quit and focus on Astronomy, much to my dismay but with relief. This came with my father’s blessings since the scholarship enabling me to continue my work had come from the French Ministry for my research at Paris Observatory in Meudon. He still encourages me to one day go back and finish my English thesis … and Stephen King still writes books, so it may happen one day…

About Athena Coustenis

Athena Coustenis is a planetologist working at Paris-Meudon Observatory and studying the outer solar system, the giant planets, their satellites and the exoplanets. She is also interested in future space exploration of the external solar system.

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