Choosing a degree often involves some kind of loss. One has to let go of one's other passions or interests to explore one field well and professionally. However, this does not always have to be the case. Przemysław Rudź, a composer, electronic music performer, sound engineer, music producer, populariser of astronomy, author of books and guides, and employee of the Polish Space Agency, talks about his professional path that combines several different careers.
Marcel Jakubowski: - You are a musician, science populariser, writer, entrepreneur. What was your first passion?
Przemysław Rudź: - It all started with astronomy. Even as a child, I was looking up at the sky. At the age of nine or ten, a friend and I used to travel by train from my hometown of Elbląg to the astronomical observatory and planetarium in Frombork. Our tutor showed us how to observe the sky and told us all the theories related to it. It was a wonderful experience for a young person at a time when people lived in concrete, grey cities. There were a lot of popular science programmes on the two-channel television of the time. I would purposely tear myself away from school to watch programmes such as Sonda, Laboratory, Halo Computer or Spectrum. After high school, I thought I was going to be an astronomer.
- But eventually, you decided to study geography...
- I think I was a bit scared of these astronomy studies when I went to Toruń. There they told me that 90 per cent of students drop out after the first year because of the level of difficulty. I had a music band at the time. We played progressive rock and I didn't want to give it all up for my studies. I found geography studies at the University of Gdańsk, where astronomy was a subject taught for two semesters. I had always been interested in geography and had won a couple of competitions, so I decided to take the exams. In the Department of Climatology and Meteorology, I dealt with the influence of solar activity on the Earth's climate. Towards the end of my studies, which was in 1998, they installed internet in the dormitory. It was just crazy. We had access to a huge amount of knowledge, which helped me a lot in writing my thesis. Later, I had been a PhD student for two years when suddenly my supervisor died during surgery. I found a second supervisor in Warsaw, but he could not provide for me. The mundanity of life meant that my scientific career did not develop as I wanted. I went to work for Young Digital Poland, where I was in charge of multimedia education. I spent a couple of nice years there. I lived quite modestly. However, one day I asked my boss for a loan. I said I would eat buckwheat groats for a year, but I would pay it back quickly. With this money, I bought myself the telescope of my dreams. In the end, I didn't eat buckwheat groats non-stop, but I lost a lot of weight then.
- Was that your return to astronomy?
- Yes. At the same time, thanks to the Internet, I realised that lots of people were watching the sky with me. I was sharing heavily on one of the most popular astronomy forums at the time - astro4u. I once even saw the statistics of this activity - several thousand posts! We started to organise rallies and trips. We used to meet in Bieszczady, Podlasie, Beskidy or in the Limnological Station of UG in Borucino. There were even expeditions to total solar eclipses, such as the one in Turkey in 2006. At some point, I realised that I already knew quite a lot about astronomy. And then a symptomatic incident happened. I had a colleague who had been in my year at university, but who had left for Warsaw, where he had set up a cartographic publishing house, dealing with tourist maps. We met one day and I pitched him the idea of publishing a sky atlas. He said that an atlas alone was not enough and we would need textbook chapters, something like a guidebook. From these conversations, my first book 'Sky for the Weekend. A young astronomer's guidebook'. The sheets of the accompanying maps were waterproof, so they could be taken into the field. The market for astronomy publications in those days was very poor, so this item sold like hotcakes. It was a complete success. Altogether, over the years, my handbook had a circulation of around several tens of thousands in various versions and reissues. It made me better known in the community. It wasn't long before I was approached by another publishing house with an offer to collaborate, then another, and so I started writing popular science books.
- Do you think that this unfinished PhD helped you to write in a more accessible language?
- Definitely. I regretted it at the time, and I regretted it a lot, but if I had been caught up in the academic machine - teaching classes, writing articles, internships, grants - I probably wouldn't have gone back to what I wanted to do. It turned out that I could write in a clear, opinionated and engaging way. This is what is and will always be in demand. Today's academics who work in universities don't have the time to write that kind of stuff, and I've found my niche in that. I am an intermediary between them and the public. I understand what the experts are saying, I can verify it and I can communicate it in an accessible way. In addition to astronomy, I've also written a few handbooks/guides about the Earth and its history, palaeontology or music.
- And when did you return to another passion from your youth, music?
- Around 2008, my partner (now wife) noticed that when riding the bus or tram I was subconsciously doing fingering exercises of scales, passages etc. At the time I might have given the impression of some nervous passenger about to do something crazy. She convinced me that if it was still in me, I should get back to music. I took out a loan, bought the equipment and started to remember everything. A year later I had a finished album inspired by musicians like Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze. I sent it to various labels, but for a long time, I didn't get any response. I started to wonder if maybe what I had sent was just weak. However, one day the phone rang. I picked up and on the other end, I hear 'Good morning, Kordowicz speaking'. My legs buckled under me then. I recognised the voice immediately. It was the legendary editor of Polish Radio's Third Program, Jerzy Kordowicz. The same Kordowicz I know from the now classic Tangerine Dream album 'Poland'. He wanted to present my entire debut album in his programme. A few weeks after my album appeared in his 'Studio el-muzyki', I got a call from Ziemowit Poniatowski from the Generator.pl label with a proposal to work together. It was a crazy year. I released three albums during that period. I call them informally the Lem trilogy, because the first one 'Summa Technologiae' is a direct reference to one of Stanisław Lem's greatest works, and the other two are its consequent extension.
- You have created music inspired by science fiction, you have written a young astronomer's guide, and you have recorded a CD called 'Music for Stargazing', which is music for observing the stars. Do you write books and record albums for the same audience?
- It all dovetails together. Electronic music is primarily associated with space, the cosmos, with mysterious sounds. It teaches humility and forces you to relax. You have to close the balcony, lock the windows, turn out the lights, sit back with a drink or a cigar and let yourself be carried away. This is how audiophiles listen to music. When I used to go to astronomy rallies, 90 per cent of the people in the cars had CDs by Vangelis, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Jean-Michel Jarre, Marek Bilinski, Józef Skrzek and so on. Science fiction conventions are not particularly different in this respect. In my opinion, the common denominator here is astronomy, space, great puzzles and questions about the meaning of it all. My friend prof. Maciej Mikołajewski from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń once said that this field of science has enormous cultural potential. Man has always looked to the sky; our whole life is contained in it. We live on Earth, which is one of the celestial bodies and orbits the Sun. The Sun is a star and part of the Milky Way galaxy and so on. Astronomy has inspired poets, writers and composers. It was a science even before mathematics or chemistry was invented.
- Apart from music and writing, you also work for the Polish Space Agency. What does your work look like?
- I never thought that the Polish Space Agency (POLSA) would be established in Poland, and even if it was, I was convinced that its headquarters would be located in the capital and not here in Pomerania. One day I found an advertisement on the Internet that POLSA was looking for employees. I wrote a cover letter and was invited to an interview. A day or two before it, I was asked by TVP Gdańsk to comment on an event happening in the sky. My future boss saw me on TV at the time and said something like 'Look, this is the man who is coming here tomorrow about the job. I want him!'. Once I got there, the conversation turned out to be very cool and at great ease. A few weeks later I was hired by the Education Department of the Polish Space Agency. Just yesterday I came back from a conference in Toruń, where I talked about the Future Space project, in which I wrote, with my colleagues, a dozen or so lesson scripts for secondary school teachers so that they could introduce cross-curricular content related to satellite technology and astronomy. Such content must start to appear in schools, because the current core curriculum, needs a strong refresh. We also organise various symposia, conferences and lecture series. This year, the second edition of the Student Space Conference - SKK Wrocław 2022 - will be held. As POLSA, we report to the Ministry of Development and Technology, so we are an intermediary between business and the world of science in Poland. We try to match entrepreneurs who want to operate in this sector with universities that produce specialists. This is more or less the department we are responsible for.
- How do you manage to bring it all together?
- I make no secret of the fact that my nature is rather neurotic, but, paradoxically, I take on a lot of things, sometimes too much. This also has its consequences. I then need to relax. Literature, for example, helps me to do this because it requires total concentration and detachment from the outside world. Then there's music and astronomy, which can't be done in a hurry, in this mad rush of a modern man.
- Finally, what would you say to young people who, like you, have a lot of interests - music or astronomy - and don't know which way to go?
- If I can be any kind of authority on the matter, first of all, you have to ask yourself 'Do I have a passion?'. If I do, great, and if I don't, it's high time to change that. You only have one life and you have to find your way of doing it. If you don't have a deep fascination for a subject, it's difficult to give up, for example, going out for a beer or other pleasurable things, because you have to practise your instrument or carry a heavy telescope across the wilderness. And you have to practise, you have to further your education, you have to self-improve. There once lived an 18th-century scientist, Thomas Young, who was said to be the last to know everything. Nowadays, there are no longer any such people, because their heads would burst from an excess of information. You have to plan your passions so that you don't have too many, otherwise, you won't be able to cope with them. I would also advise that if you have a fascination, you have to go into it strongly. Go to rallies, read online forums and seek information and specialists. No one will do it for us. The modern world is an information jungle, but I don't want it to sound Darwinistic that only the fittest survive in this jungle. It's just that we have so many opportunities for self-realisation and self-improvement that it's basically only up to us to decide whether and how we achieve this proverbial American dream for ourselves. From a beginner to a millionaire, or from a boy from Elbląg to someone who has recorded more than twenty-some records, meets professional astronomers and works in the Polish Space Agency. It seems that if someone looks at me that way, I could probably be such a source of inspiration. And not to sound so turgidly, I'm a normal person who watches dorky TV series, cheers on Polish footballers, volleyballers and very importantly, really enjoys going out for a beer with his mates.