School and University in New Zealand, and then PhD in Australia
BTech(Hons), BSc(Hons), PhD
I was a sound engineer once upon a time, and then an astrophysicist ever since
Full time research on planets!
University of Cambridge
Favourite thing to do in my job Finding something new! It’s a very cool moment when you realise you’re looking at something no-one has ever seen before, or you understand something better than anyone else on Earth.
I work on the asteroids, comets, and planets around other stars, so other Solar Systems like our own.
You might know that the Solar System has a bunch of planets, and a bunch of smaller bodies called comets and asteroids. This “small stuff” is mostly in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter, and the Kuiper belt beyond Neptune, which includes Pluto. If you look at some of these images and find one with Pluto in it, you’ll see that Pluto is only one of a whole bunch of guys in the Kuiper belt, which is why we decided to stop calling it a planet. Real planets like Earth and Jupiter don’t have a whole pile of other guys orbiting with them.
Mostly I look for asteroid and comet belts around other stars. There’s an image of one around Fomalhaut further down the page. These not only look cool, but tell us about what kind of planetary systems these stars have.
Most of my work uses space telescopes. The red part of the picture of Andromeda on the Space Zone home page is a picture taken in the infra-red with the Herschel Space Observatory, the same telescope I use for a lot of things.
My Typical Day
Normally involves making interesting plots and images from telescopes, and then trying to invent a theory that helps understand what is going on.
To do astronomy you need a computer. All of the pictures we take these days are digital, so we need computers to analyse the images. Normally we make interesting plots and figures that tell us what’s going on with the data.
Here’s a really cool one I made, which shows stars that are being looked at by Kepler, an American space mission that is discovering loads of planets around loads of other stars. It’s just a picture of the part of the sky that Kepler is looking at, with yellow dots for interesting stars, little rectangles for the parts of the sky that Kepler is looking at, and the grey background shows some of the dust in our Galaxy.
Once I have a bunch of interesting plots, I write a story about them. I normally have some help from other people I work with too, which is very helpful. When the story is finished, we send it to a journal that publishes it, and then anyone can read about what I’ve found.
What I'd do with the money
I’d buy a time-lapse camera that astronomers at our institute would take to the telescopes they go to, so we can make movies that show you what happens in a night’s observing.
You probably know that the Sun moves over the sky during the day right? Everything that we look at in space does that too, because it’s caused by the Earth spinning (like this). You probably also know that this spin is slow, because it takes a whole day for the sun to move across the sky.
When we use telescopes, they follow this movement, very slowly. So slowly that it’s hard to see it happen (imagine standing outside and keeping your arm pointed at the Sun for a whole day, your arm would get very tired and you’d have to move very slowly too!).
With £500 I’d buy a time lapse camera for the astronomers at our institute to take to telescopes and make movies of the telescope moving over the night. It’s a camera that takes pictures over a long period of time, so after you put all the photos together into a movie. Here’s a wee example I made of the HUGE Large Binocular Telescope moving further down the page. With a time lapse camera for everyone at my work to use, we could make much better ones!
There’s a bigger version of the movie on my flickr website here.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
planet collision explainer (or to be a bit controversial: Pluto not planet!)
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
I made a prediction that bigger (and heavier) stars are more likely to have planets like Jupiter orbiting them. It turned out to be right!
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Not really, I had to pick up rubbish at lunch time a few times.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
I’m pretty old school, and still listen to stuff my dad played when I was a kid, like Dire Straits. There is also great stuff from New Zealand, like Salmonella Dub.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
I had a pretty amazing holiday in Iceland a few years ago. I swam with a whale shark in Australia once too.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
Not sure about the first two, but the last one would be three more wishes. It would be nice if the ten richest people in the world gave 10% of their money to charity, that would change the world.
Tell us a joke.
How do you organise a space party? You planet!
Here’s a picture of the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) in Arizona, USA. Each of the mirrors is 8 meters across, so probably as big as your classroom! If you look hard you can see that there are some very small people in between the two mirrors.
Here’s a picture of a ring of asteroids and comets around a nearby star called Fomalhaut. It was taken with the Herschel Space Observatory, a European space telescope I use for my science. There’s more info here.