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Blog

Appointed Lead Scientist

Alan Duffy

This is an incredible honour and something I'm delighted to finally announce but after a national application process I've been chosen as the new Lead Scientist of the Royal Institution of Australia, home of Australia's Science Channel

Australia, and the world, faces significant challenges ahead but it will be more science and technology not less that will see us through. That’s why it’s so critical we continue to explain and share the latest breakthroughs by Australia’s researchers and inspire the next generation into STEM. At Australia’s Science Channel we can ensure the best and most inspiring science stories are fed directly into classrooms around the nation, and further shared around the world. 

I hope I live up to the great legacy of the Royal Institution and am able to play a positive role in raising science's profile, and science literacy more generally, in Australia!

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"Dark-ages reionization & galaxy formation simulation IX: Economics of Reionizing Galaxies" - Duffy et al. (2017)

Alan Duffy

This is one of the most fun papers I have ever written (and not just because of the title). The picture astronomers have of the early universe is one of galaxies growing rapidly, turning vast quantities of gas rich clouds into stars in a boom-time of star formation. By using the Smaug simulations of this period I and my DRAGONS colleagues were able to explore this picture. We found that cold gas is indeed consumed rapidly, in just 300 million years irrespective of how stars explode or that gas can cool. However, theres so much material pouring into the galaxies at this time that they simply can't consume it all! A system where demand (gas turing into stars) can't raise to meet supply (of new primary material flowing in) is a recession.

Far from a booming bull-market, the early Universe was a recessionary bear-market and that's why I love this paper...

 

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"Dark-ages Reionization and Galaxy Formation Simulation - VIII. Suppressed growth of dark matter haloes during the Epoch of Reionization" - Qin et al. (2017)

Alan Duffy

This is a spectacular study by my Yuxiang Qin, one of my PhD students I am fortunate to co-supervise with Dr Simon Mutch and Prof Stuart Wyithe as part of DRAGONS. In this work Yuxiang compares the growth of dark matter structures in the early universe both with and without the impact of gas physics (in particular the fact that giant clouds of atoms have a pressure that prevents them collapsing unlike dark matter). Most simulations ignore that effect to save computational time. Yuxiang showed that's potentially a disastrous step for first structures where the gas prevents the halo from collapsing and through its gravitational pull can also slow the collapse of dark matter itself meaning simulations that take a computational shortcut can produce early haloes that are far larger than they should otherwise be. 

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Stargazing: Journey in to Space with Dr Duffy and Grace

Alan Duffy

I loved making this short ABC ME series with the wonderfully talented and ever enthusiastic Grace Koh trying to explain the answers to questions that we all think of, while restricting ourselves to a green screen and about 3 minutes in total. You can watch all 5 episodes on iView or catch them as interstitials between your favourite shows on ABC ME. Also who doesn't love a big red button?!

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Todd Sampson's Life on the Line

Alan Duffy

Todd Sampson is insane. There. I said it. I understand physics, I trust 100% in the universality of the laws we explore in Life on the Line, but I certainly don't have 100% trust in the engineering. In episode 3 we discuss Friction by throwing Todd off a bungee jump without it being secured (simply interleaved pages of a phonebook). The principle of geometric amplification of the friction means that these phonebooks won't slip by. Everything else however could go wrong. In episode 4 we discuss Conversation of Energy by using a one tonne wrecking ball. This actually DOES go wrong. Yet still he risks his life. I love Todd's trust in my calculations, I just wish he wouldn't actually put his Life on the Line with them. 

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Stargazing Live: Back to Earth

Alan Duffy

Awesome. In the truest sense of the word. How else to describe Stargazing Live? A national science extravaganza that involved the great on screen scientists of our age (Prof Brian Cox, Prof Chris Lintott, A/Prof Lisa Harvey-Smith) explaining the latest science from the gorgeous Siding Spring Observatory. I was a permanent panel member trying to answer the public's questions on the Back to Earth show that followed Stargazing each night. The public were asked to help us find alien worlds using Exoplanet Explorer, by the of the three nights Brian was able to announce a world with four super-Earths all closer in than Mercury... Insane. I still can't understand how it formed. Truly one of the most incredible experiences I've ever been part of, thanks Stargazing!

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Cosmic Vertigo is out!

Alan Duffy

The new ABC Radio National science podcast hit the airwaves and I cannot be prouder of this show. Alongside my rantings is the insightful, measured yet ever enthusiastic explanations of my friend and co-star Dr Amanda Bauer. The entire series is run by the ABC's astoundingly talented producer Joel Werner. Subscribe and have a listen wherever you get your podcasts (iTunes).

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"Dark-ages reionization and galaxy-formation simulation - VII. The sizes of high-redshift galaxies" - Chuanwu et al. (2017)

Alan Duffy

A lovely prediction paper from Chuanwu Liu of the DRAGONS collaboration showing the expected sizes for the most distant galaxies that current (and future) telescopes are trying to observe. The tentative existing detections appear to be well explained by our model of galaxy formation with the effective radius (i.e. the size of the disk of the galaxy) being larger for brighter objects but only with a power law scaling of 0.25! In other words a galaxy ten thousand times more luminous will be a disk galaxy only ten times wider. Finally, we make clear that the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope (the James Webb Space Telescope) will be unlikely to see these tiny disks and instead we will have to wait for ground based extremely large telescopes like the Giant Magellan Telescope (and critically one in which Australia is heavily invested).

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Melbhenge goes world-wide

Alan Duffy

The alignment of the setting Sun with Melbourne's Hoddle Grid only occurs twice a year, causing a beautiful sight of the Sun framed by a mile-long corridor of skyscrapers. The astronomy is easy, but where is the best location to view this? Which of the East-West streets (Collins, Bourke, Lonsdale or LaTrobe?) and what intersection as the trams and trees can get in the way... I asked the City of Melbourne to get out and snap photos and post online with their location using the hashag #Melbhenge to crowd-source the answer. Incredibly the request was shared on ABC Melbourne radio, The Age, Broadsheet and finally to a world-wide audience on the BBC. Amazing. Stay tuned for the best location for November 3rd's event as I go through all the incredible photos (like the image I've grabbed from Rachel Dexter on Collins St) from this event.

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Flying high in the Qantas mag!

Alan Duffy

Super bizarre but cool honour to find myself featured in Qantas Magazine! I travel ridiculous amounts for work and find myself flicking through this mag on take off and landing, never thought I'd be reading about myself! Thanks iQ for uncovering my secret shame that I am rubbish with DVD players.

As you can tell I was a little excited about seeing myself at the end of an international flight in the Spirit of Australia inflight magazine..!

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An Australian Science Superhero

Alan Duffy

So this is absurdly cool, the Chief Scientist has named me as one of Australia's Science Superheroes... I honestly can't claim this (and especially not when you see the other superheroes) but it gave me a chance to answer some fun questions about what my 'superpower' in science actually is.

How do you become a superhero scientist? Well firstly you don't need to get bitten by a radioactive (and very smart) spider instead during National Science Week in August 2016, Australia’s Chief Scientist launched the #5ScientistPledge to recognise Australian Scientists. Those scientists are now getting recognised with a new tag – #AusScienceHeroes

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"Dark-ages reionization and galaxy-formation simulation- VI. The origins and fate of the highest known redshift galaxy" - Mutch et al. (2016b)

Alan Duffy

The recent discovery by Oesch et al. (2016) of a far-off galaxy seen just 400 million years after the Big Bang but already having accumulated a billion Sun's worth of stars was considered a bizarre object. Yet the simulated DRAGONS universe apparently contains several analogues as shown in this beautiful work by my colleague Dr Simon Mutch. We show that such a monstrously oversized baby galaxy is possible if it grows rapidly but consistently throughout time and not as a result of cannibalising neighbouring objects through galaxy mergers as is oft suspected.

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Space turkey, touring Saturn and impossible rockets

Alan Duffy

My regular column in theconversation (as well as appearance on ABC Breakfast News) explored a Thanksgiving meal that was out of this world, as well as the beginning of the end for the Cassini mission (but not without a spectacular final view) and a new fuel-less rocket that set the internet alight might be a misfire after all.

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The impossible EM drive

Alan Duffy

A new rocket that seemingly can create thrust without using fuel to push backwards has just been published. My thoughts in news.com.au were not entirely positive. Simply put this would break Newton's 3rd law, and also translation invariance (or the idea that the laws of physics don't change in one spot to another). If this rocket really doesn't need fuel to create thrust than that would be the end of physics as we know it. Instead my guess is that this is likely just thermal expansion as the microwaves (inside the EM drive) are turned on and heat it. 

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International Mining and Resources Conference

Alan Duffy

An unusual opportunity came up to speak at the International Mining and Resources Conference housed at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre to explore the possibilities of spin off tech from our underground dark matter searches. I focussed on the science of SABRE, the possibilities of an X-ray like scan for gold in the mine around using Muon Tomography and other underground science such as understanding how life grows without radiation / astrobiology. Finally I discussed the possible future for mining, in space! Key technologies such as automation and refinement have been deployed by the giants in the resource extraction sector and could find a home for their advanced technologies in the final frontier.

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"Dark-ages reionization and galaxy formation simulation V: morphology and statistical signatures of reionization" - Geil et al. (2016)

Alan Duffy

A key goal of the DRAGONS investigation was to predict how growing galaxies in the early universe would ionise the neutral hydrogen around them. This is the long-sought after signal of Reionisation (also known as Cosmic Dawn) when the Universe was filled with light, lifting this dark opaque fog. It is the target for telescopes like the Square Kilometre Array to characterise that early universe when ionised bubbles of gas around the galaxies resembles a swiss cheese model. This beautiful work by Dr Paul Geil calculated how our simulated galaxies would impact that material around them finding that the galaxy formation that resulted in the biggest impact was the nature of how stars exploded. This both ionised gas around it but more importantly limited how new stars could form and hence limit the amount of ionising radiation and therefore the size and number of the ionised bubbles. This is however not a unique signature and instead even when we find the swiss cheese universe we have a lot of work ahead to tease out its lessons. Depressing but beautifully analysed science by Paul.

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Shrinking Mercury all it's cracked up to be

Alan Duffy

Amidst the exciting news of landing on comets and SpaceX plans to get to Mars, NASA released astounding findings that the smallest planet Mercury actually has tectonic activity just like Earth. Such a small world should be geologically dead and yet it has features that appear unweathered by bombardments from meteors meaning that they are no older than a few million years. It means Mercury joins Earth as the only rocky planet to have tectonic activity, and also means it may have Earthquakes (or should that be Mercury-quakes?)

I wrote about it in theconversation and chatted to ABC Breakfast News TV as well as ABC 702 radio.

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"Dark-ages reionization and galaxy formation simulation - III. Modelling galaxy formation and the epoch of reionization" - Mutch et al. (2016a)

Alan Duffy

A mammoth effort by my long-time collaborator Dr Simon Mutch explaining the semi-analytic model Meraxes that `paints' the galaxies onto the background dark matter structures formed in the huge simulated DRAGONS universe. This work has so many critical lessons on key physics that grows a galaxy that matches what we see in the distant universe (and hence seeing those objects as they were long ago when the light first left them). Perhaps the key is that the fraction of energetic light that can escape forming galaxies (and hence ionise the neutral hydrogen atoms in the vast distances between them) has to increase towards earlier times. Somehow galaxies trap evermore of this radiation as they grow up. A mystery that we will hopefully solve in this series of works!

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