I hope everyone keeps reading about science when this finishes.
Favourite Thing: I love to use very large telescopes, collecting light from astronomical objects that are usually millions of kilometres away.
Turnpike School Newbury (1975-1980), Newbury College of Further Education (1980-1982), Sussex University (1982-1985), Leicester University (1985-1988)
A-Levels in Physics, Maths and Computing, BSc Degree in Physics and Astronomy, PhD in Astrophysics
Greenwich Observatory London, Queen’s University Belfast
I’m a Professor of Astronomy
Queen’s University Belfast
Me and my work
I study comets and asteroids orbiting our Sun, including some that can hit us.
I’m an astronomer studying asteroids and comets orbiting our Sun. Asteroids are mostly made of rock, while comets are mostly made of ice. By measuring what they are like, we get clues to how our Solar system was born and how it has changed over time.
One of our main jobs is finding Near-Earth Objects which could someday hit the Earth. They can be the size of a small mountain, and travelling at 40,000 miles per hour. They don’t often hit us, but when they do the explosion can be hundreds, thousands or millions of times larger than a nuclear bomb.
I use telescopes all over the world. Sometimes I have to go and operate the telescope myself, sometimes I send students, and sometimes the data is taken for me and sent back to me in Belfast.
The telescope I am concentrating on using right now is called Pan-STARRS, and it is on the island of Maui in the Pacific Ocean. It has the largest digital camera in the world, and we use it each night to scan the sky and detect asteroids and comets.
Here’s a photo of me standing next to the camera we use – it’s bigger than me!
So far we have found over 800 with Pan-STARRS in just 3 years, and none are on a collision course right now! Just in case, I work with another team of European scientists to work out how to stop a collision happening.
My Typical Day
I calculate some physics or measure some data, talk to other scientists, and teach physics and astronomy.
Every morning I check my email and reply to ones that have come in over night from colleagues in the United States. I work at a University so most mornings I will be doing some teaching, sometimes to a class of over 100 physics students. Other times I help students with their projects, like studying gases just above the surface of the Sun, or looking for comets around other stars.
After lunch I generally spend some time doing science. This could be discussing the latest results from students studying for their PhDs with me, or continuing the analysis of all the data we’re getting from the Pan-STARRS telescope. We’ve got over 7 million detections of asteroids and comets so far, so this is taking some time 🙂
All of this is changes if I’m away at an observatory. There the day starts in mid-afternoon when I wake up. I’ll prepare my plans for that night, have dinner before sunset, then be using the telescope all night until it gets light again at sunrise. And all on a mountain top over 9,000 feet high – I love living and working up there!
This picture of me watching the Milky Way setting shows what the sky looks like, far away from any streetlights.
What I'd do with the money
Hold a competition for 11-12 year old school pupils – “What would you like to discover in space?”
I would hold a competition for students in their 1st year of secondary school.
To enter they will write about what they would like to discover in space.
The first prize will be a small telescope, with a pair of binoculars for the runner-up. These will let them see the craters and mountains on the Moon, the way I first saw it when I was their age. Maybe one day they’ll become an astronomer too.
Any money left over will pay for me to travel to the winning school to give a talk on being an scientist.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Cheerful, enthusiastic, thoughtful.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Queen – simply classic!
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Snorkelling in Hawaii.
What did you want to be after you left school?
A computer programmer – I thought I might get a company car given to me!
Were you ever in trouble in at school?
Yes, and hopefully my school teachers aren’t reading this.
What was your favourite subject at school?
I was split between physics and geography.
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Studying a small asteroid 4 hours before it hit the Earth – the first time anyone had done this.
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
My physics teacher, seeing the moon through a small telescope, and watching tv programmes about space.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
I’d try to be a photographer, but I’m not sure I’d be good enough.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
A much better memory … and I can’t remember the other two.
Tell us a joke.
What do you call a boomerang that doesn’t come back? A stick.
This is my desk in my office! I use my laptop with an extra screen plugged in. Also useful are backup disks to make copies of my work, the cuddly dinosaur sitting on one of the disks, and the always important coffee cup.
Of course when I’m in the control room of a telescope somewhere like Chile, this is where I’m sitting all night with the other astronomers and engineers:
The view out of the windows in Chile looking over the mountains is pretty nice.
I also really enjoy being on islands like La Palma and Hawaii, and looking down on the cloud tops far below us.