Duncan Steel

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This article is about the British astronomer. For the American physicist, see Duncan G. Steel.
Duncan I. Steel
Born 1955 (age 59–60)

Duncan I. Steel FRAS (born 1955), is a British scientist born in Midsomer Norton, Somerset. Currently he lives in Wellington, New Zealand, but holds visiting positions as a Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Buckingham in England; as a Space Scientist at NASA-Ames Research Center in California; and as an Astronomer at Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland. Duncan is a space science authority who has worked with NASA to assess the threat of comet and asteroid collisions and investigate technologies to avert such impacts. He is also the author of four popular-level science books on space, and regularly writes for The Guardian and various other newspapers and magazines. He was the discoverer of the main-belt asteroid 9767 Midsomer Norton, plus another eleven minor planets.

Duncan was born within a few yards of the back row of seats in the Palladium Cinema (in the High Street of Midsomer Norton), where his father Ken Steel (b. 1929) started as rewind boy and finally needed to close the establishment, as the owner, 49 years later. His mother Shirley Steel (b. 1932) was brought up in Parsons Newsagency in The Island; she was awarded the British Empire Medal (BEM) in the New Year's Honours 2014 in recognition of her 62 years of voluntary service to the local community.

There are five children of the Steel family. The eldest is Professor Karen Steel (b. 1953), a geneticist who was inducted as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2009, was jointly awarded the Brain Prize in 2012 by the Queen of Denmark, and is now Professor of Sensory Function at King's College London; she is married to Dr Simon Teague (one child: Sam). Next is Duncan. Following him is Melinda Dowling (b. 1958) who runs Headlines Hairdressers in the High Street; she is married to Dale Dowling (three children: Abbie, Hollie and Jayson). The youngest daughter is Dr Ashley Steel (b. 1959) who lives in London with her partner Angie, and has worked for KPMG for many years. Russell Steel (b. 1964) lives in Midsomer Norton and Florida and operates a dealership in second-hand caravans and imported Harley-Davidson motorcycles plus a paintball game business at Hunstrete; he is married to Lynn (four children: Chelsea, Oliver, Brandon and Jared).

Duncan was married, first, to Margareta Olsson of Helsingborg, Sweden (1982–88; no children) and, second, to Helen Pope of Adelaide (1991–2005; sons Harry and Elliot). For some years he went by the name Olsson-Steel.

Outside the world of space science, Duncan claims to have introduced the Sex Pistols at their first completed concert (28 November 1975) at Queen Elizabeth College, and also The 101'ers (featuring Joe Strummer later of The Clash).

Early life and career[edit]

Duncan grew up in Midsomer Norton, Somerset, where he attended Norton Hill School (formerly Midsomer Norton Grammar School) from 1966–73. He was a member for many years of the 1st Midsomer Norton Scout Group. Amongst his various jobs were putting up the posters for the cinema, calling the bingo numbers, selling ice creams, delivering newspapers, and delivering bread for Smith's Bakeries. Before going up to college in London he worked in the family caravan business. At college he ran all the entertainments, including the bands, discos and films. In 1975 he travelled Europe by train and got as far south as Marrakech. In 1976 he worked on a summer camp in upstate New York. In 1977–78 he was a teacher (A-Level Physics) at a crammer college in central London. In 1978 he travelled around the US (40 states) and Canada by Greyhound bus.

Later career[edit]

Asteroids discovered: 12
5263 Arrius 13 April 1991
6828 Elbsteel 12 November 1990
9038 Helensteel 12 November 1990
9193 Geoffreycopland 10 March 1992
9758 Dainty 13 April 1991
9767 Midsomer Norton 10 March 1992
10107 Kenny 27 March 1992
16578 Essjayess 29 March 1992
24734 Kareness 10 March 1992
55815 Melindakim 31 December 1994
58196 Ashleyess 10 March 1992
69311 Russ 21 August 1992

Duncan attended the University of London, studying as an undergraduate at Queen Elizabeth College (BSc in Physics and Astrophysics, 1977) and also University College, and as a graduate student in astrophysics at Queen Mary College (1977–78) and then at the Imperial College of Science and Technology where he took an MSc and DIC in Applied Optics (1978–79). From September 1979 to January 1982 he worked at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics of the University of Colorado at Boulder on NASA's Pioneer Venus Orbiter spacecraft. For the following three years he was at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, building a radar for meteor studies, being awarded a PhD degree in 1985. Between 1985 and 1996 he was associated with the University of Adelaide, South Australia, undertaking research in radar meteors, and asteroid and comet dynamics. In 1987–88 he was a European Space Agency Research Fellow at Lunds Observatoriet, Sweden. From 1990–95 he also worked at the Anglo-Australian Observatory in Coonabarabran, New South Wales, where he established and directed the first southern hemisphere program for the discovery and tracking of near-Earth asteroids. From 1988–99 he additionally ran his own companies, amongst them Spaceguard Australia Pty Ltd. He was Associate Professor of Space Technology at the Joule Physics Laboratory, University of Salford in 1999–2003. From 2004–2012 he worked in Canberra for Ball Aerospace Australia and QinetiQ Pty Ltd, providing expert advice on technical matters to the Australian Department of Defence.

He has been involved in investigations on small bodies in the solar system using optical telescopes, meteor radar systems, and theoretical techniques to investigate their dynamical evolution. Amongst his scientific achievements have been the identification of the first asteroid spinning so fast that it must be a monolith, the first identification of interstellar dust entering the atmosphere, and an influx of comet-derived meteoroids ablating high in the atmosphere that appear to be made of tarry organics. He is also interested in the astronomy and history of calendars, and the life of Charles Babbage among many other things.

Books published[edit]

  • Rogue Asteroids and Doomsday Comets: The Search for the Million Megaton Menace That Threatens Life on Earth (Wiley, New York, 1995) (with a foreword by Arthur C. Clarke).
  • Eclipse: The Celestial Phenomenon Which Changed the Course of History (Headline, London, 1999 & 2000) (with a foreword by Paul Davies).
  • Target Earth (Time Life 2000; Readers Digest 2001) (with an afterword by Arthur C. Clarke)
  • Marking Time: The Epic Quest to Invent the Perfect Calendar (Wiley, New York, 2000).
  • Eclipse: The Celestial Phenomenon That Changed the Course of History (National Academies Press, Washington DC, 2001) (with a foreword by Paul Davies).

Other achievements[edit]

  • Duncan is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and a member of the International Astronomical Union.
  • He has discovered a dozen asteroids (or minor planets) including the 9767 Midsomer Norton, in 1992, which he named for his home town.
  • Asteroid 4713 Steel is named after him.
  • He also discovered the asteroids 5263 Arrius and 6828 Elbsteel which were named for his sons by the International Astronomical Union. Amongst his other discoveries are: 10107 Kenny, named for his father; 16578 Essjayess, named for his mother (her initials are SJS); 24734 Kareness, named for his elder sister; 55815 Melindakim, named for his middle sister; 58196 Ashleyess, named for his youngest sister; and 69311 Russ, named for his brother. However, his favourite is 7345 Happer (discovered by Robert H. McNaught), which is named for the character Felix Happer in the movie Local Hero, who really wanted a comet to be called after him.
  • There is a robot named after Duncan (viz. Robot Steel) in Arthur C. Clarke's novel The Hammer of God.
  • He has worked for both NASA and the European Space Agency.
  • Duncan is author of over 140 refereed scientific research papers and a thousand newspaper and magazine articles.
  • He has appeared in many TV and radio programmes, including BBC TV's The Sky at Night.
  • Duncan was Science Adviser for the two-hour documentary Three Minutes to Impact, which was awarded an Emmy for Best Script in 1998.
  • He was one of six foreign members of NASA's Spaceguard committee in 1991–92 and was the only non-US member of the Near-Earth Object Interception and Deflection committee.
  • Already having a company named Spaceguard registered in South Australia, and knowing Arthur C. Clarke, it was Duncan who suggested the Spaceguard name for the international search for potentially-dangerous near-Earth objects.
  • Duncan twice served as Vice-President of The Spaceguard Foundation.
  • He was a member of the British Delegation to the OECD Global Science Forum conference on Near-Earth Objects, Frascati, Italy, 2003.

Personal life[edit]

Duncan lived in Knutsford, Cheshire, for four years before moving back to Australia, shifting to New Zealand in June 2013. He has also lived in the USA and Sweden, and visited over sixty other countries.

He named the asteroids 5263 Arrius and 6828 Elbsteel after his sons Harrison Callum Bertram Steel (b. 1992) and Elliot Lewis Barnaby Steel (b. 1995). Harry's asteroid couldn't be called Harrison because there was already one of those (George Harrison), and 'Arrius' was the title of a poem by Catullus that Duncan had to translate in Latin class at MNGS (about a Roman who dropped his aitches); whilst Elliot's asteroid couldn't be called that because there was already one named Eliot (for T.S. Eliot). Harry is now an undergraduate at the University of Sydney, studying for a BSc in Physics and a BE in Mechanical and Space Engineering, whilst Elliot is at the University of Queensland, studying for a BSc in Physics.