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The astronomical journey of UniSQ asteroid expert

From big dreams to bigger skies, Dr Clifford Cunningham is reaching them all

Clifford Cunningham has chased asteroids his whole life. At age seven, he decided to become an astronomer and has since become one of the world’s foremost experts on the topic.

“Stars and galaxies are spectacular, but as a child they seemed to me to always look exactly the same. That's how I got interested in asteroids – they move,” he said.

Canadian-born Dr Cunningham is now a University of Southern Queensland Research Fellow and his latest book, Asteroids (published 2021), has revisited his acclaimed 1988 publication Introduction to Asteroids: The Next Frontier.

“Grounded in historical studies of asteroids from the nineteenth century, Asteroids is an up-to-date view of these remarkable objects,” Dr Cunningham said.

“Asteroids are not just rocks in space but are key to understanding the life and death on Earth of both animals and humans.”

At age 15, Dr Cunningham was the youngest student to attend the University of Waterloo having skipped high school.

His prolific career as an author has included writing and editing 16 books. Dr Cunningham dedicated almost 30 years to five volumes on asteroid studies in the 19th century, focused on Ceres, Pallas, Juno and Vesta.

Other stellar highlights included having the International Astronomical Union name an asteroid after him (4276 Clifford) in 1990 and even cameoing on TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in 1999.

Arguably his most impactful discovery was in 2013 when Dr Cunningham solved a centuries-long mystery of who came up with the word ‘asteroid’ itself.

“Everyone assumed it was 18th/19th Century astronomer William Herschel but, during my doctoral thesis, I revealed the person who really coined the word more than 200 years ago,” Dr Cunningham said.

“The son of Herschel’s poet friend, Charles Burney, came up with it. The answer was in Burney’s personal letters which were across the Atlantic in the Yale archives.”

Since then, he has made further astronomical discoveries that recast our understanding of Milton's Paradise Lost, and the ancient origins of the stellar magnitude system.

Dr Cunningham completed a PhD on the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland in 2015 and retains an affiliation with its Centre for Astrophysics.

Keeping his eyes forever upwards and onwards, Dr Cunningham is currently editing a book on ‘Astronomy in the Enlightenment’ for Bloomsbury. He will soon begin work on editing a book on the three comets of 1618, and co-editing a publication on the Solar System by Reaktion Books.

man smiling in stairway
Dr Clifford Cunningham