WINNER, WINNER, CHICKEN DINNER!
Ordsall Hall Comprehensive School (for GCSEs in 2001 and A-levels in 2003). University of Manchester for my undergraduate (2003-2007) and postgraduate degrees (2007-2011)
11 GCSEs, 2 AS levels (Further Maths and ICT), 3 A levels (Maths, Physics and Chemistry), MPhys in Physics with Astrophysics and a PhD in Astrophysics.
Part-time during A-levels and university, I: washed cars in a garage, waitered, tended bar. During my PhD, I worked in the undergraduate labs at the University of Manchester, and spent a year helping operate an Observatory in the Canary Islands in Spain.
ESO Postdoctoral Fellow hosted at the University of Atacama
European Southern Observatory (and the University of Atacama)
Favourite thing to do in my job Travel to amazing and remote places and take data with some of the World’s biggest and best telescopes.
I try to understand what happens when stars like the Sun run out of fuel.
Stars, like the Sun, burn Hydrogen in their cores turning it into Helium and releasing lots of energy as light and heat. When they run out of Hydrogen then start burning that Helium turning it into heavier elements like Carbon, Nitrogen and Oxygen. Finally, when they run out of Helium they stop burning because they’ve run out of fuel. At this point, the puff off their outer layers into space, losing about half their mass, leaving just a hot core made from the ashes of burning all that Hydrogen and Helium. We call this a white dwarf – white because it’s hot (really hot things glow white or blue, colder things redder) and dwarf because it’s small. All the heat from this white dwarf makes the material that was puffed off before glow, and we call this glowing material a planetary nebula. Nebula is a fancy word for a cloud of gas in space. We call them planetary nebulae not because they have anything to do with planets, they don’t, but because the first astronomer to observe one also discovered Uranus and he thought they looked a bit similar. Even though the name doesn’t make much sense it just stuck!
Anyway, stars are round so we’d expect that the material they puff off should also be round, right? But, when we study them we find that they show all kinds of amazing shapes (see the image below!) and we don’t really understand why. One of our best ideas is that the dying star that formed the planetary nebula was actually orbiting around another star (just like the Earth orbits around the Sun), and that the effect of this second star is what formed the shape. My work is all about trying to test whether this is true or not.
My Typical Day
Could either be observing with a big telescope or at my computer analysing the data taken with those telescopes (with teaching a little bit of physics thrown in here and there)
My days can be quite different, but fall into two main flavours: Days at the University and days at the Observatory. So, I’ll try to summarise them both below.
At the University: I arrive at about 9AM. Check for new results that might have been published over night which relate to my work (I have to make sure I know all the news about planetary nebulae in case someone else has found something important for my research), and read my emails. I’ll probably have a few from my collaborators in other countries like the USA, UK, Spain and South Africa, so I’ll spend a little time replying to them.
Most days, I then have to go and teach a Physics class to Engineering students here at the University of Atacama. This is really challenging because the classes here are taught in Spanish! For the rest of the day, I’ll be in front of my computer, studying the data that I have taken in my most recent visit to a telescope, and trying to see what the data tells me about how these planetary nebulae form. I finish work at around 5:30PM
At the Observatory: I work at night. This means that I sleep during the day and wake up in the evening. I get out of bed just before sunset and have breakfast when most people are having their tea! After breakfast, I head to the control room where all the computers which control the telescopes are. I then spend all night taking observations with the telescope, deciding how best to use the time depending on what planetary nebulae are visible and how the weather is (if it is a little cloudy, I have to just observe the bright nebulae, for example). When the Sun comes up, I close the telescope dome and head off to have dinner (just when everyone else is getting up to have breakfast!), before going to bed and trying to sleep until I have to get up again that night!
What I'd do with the money
I’d donate the money to Universe Awareness (UNAWE) a charity that provides astronomy teaching materials to underprivileged schools
UNAWE do an amazing job (with very little money) developing really cool ways to teach astronomy in schools. My favourite of these is called the Universe in a Box, which is a box full of awesome little astronomy demonstrations, models and all sorts of other things that help to explain the Sun, the Solar System, the Earth, the Moon and the constellations. These boxes are soon to be available for schools to buy, but one of the great things UNAWE does is to donate these boxes to schools that don’t have the money to buy them or schools in very poor areas. £500 would be able to provide boxes for several of these schools, and help teach astronomy to hundreds of kids who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Interested in everything
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Travelling! Using telescopes all over the world in amazing places (in the outback of Australia, the deserts in Chile, forests in Mexico).
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
My family. Right from the beginning they helped show me what an amazing place the world is, and that science is what helps us understand it.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Sometimes! I suppose I was a bit cheeky, but I never got into trouble for anything serious.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
Probably a teacher, I guess, seeing as I also have to teach as part of being a scientist.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Difficult question! Either hiking through the Blue Mountains in Australia or watching the sunrise over the statues on Easter Island.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
Science is really competitive and with lots of short-term jobs so I’d like  To get a permanent job!  For that permanent job to be in the same place as my fiancee  For that job to be astronaut, hehe.
Tell us a joke.
Two packets of crisps are walking down a road when a car pulls up beside them and the driver offers them a lift. They say “No thanks, we’re Walkers”.
I work for the European Southern Observatory – an organisation funded by 14 European countries (including the UK) to operate some of the World’s biggest telescopes, like these!
The telescopes in the background are the 4 telescopes which make up the VLT (Very Large Telescope – astronomers are good with acronyms!) and the VST (VLT Survey Telescope). I mainly work in the one right at the back which is known as UT 1 (Unit telescope 1).
Part of my job there is to look after an instrument called FORS2, which is basically a really sensitive camera for taking images of the faintest objects in the universe. Here I am stood next to it.
Sometimes, I also use it for my own research into dying stars, taking pictures like this one.
This is a planetary nebula – it’s what’s left when a star like the Sun dies, throwing off its outer layers into space forming these amazing shapes.
We don’t just work at the observatory though. Because it is isolated, high in the Chilean Andes, all the astronomers and engineers live in a kind of hotel up there. We stay for something like a week, working there, and then get to return to our families. We don’t just work up there though, we get some time to relax. We play music, watch films, sometimes we even dance! Here is a photo of me dancing at a celebration of Chile’s national day! It’s a strange dance called a cueca where you have to wave your hankie in the air, a bit like morris dancing.
When I’m not at the Paranal observatory, I’m often at other observatories acquiring the data I need to be able to understand objects like the one I showed above. I think the telescopes are pretty impressive, so here’s a few photos I’ve gathered!
What most people don’t know, is that we don’t sit at the telescopes looking through an eye-piece, we actually operate them via computer and record the data we take digitally (a lot like taking a picture with a very fancy digital camera).