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FAQ

Ever wondered about something? Ever wanted to ask me about it? Read these answers first, and if your question is different then get in touch. I can't promise to answer every question due to the demands of research and everything else. Also don't send me your theory / idea, I won't be able to assess it, but Nobel Laureate Prof Gerard 't Hooft has an online guide to further develop it yourself.

+ WHO ARE YOU?

I am an Associate Professor in astrophysics at Swinburne University where I simulate universes on supercomputers to better understand how galaxies like our Milky Way form. I also lecture Physics to our first year STEM cohort as well as try to communicate that science beyond the class room and into the home through my media efforts. I combine all three aspects of my academic career; research, teaching and engagement; as Lead Scientist of Australia’s Science Channel but now across all fields of science, championing the value and inspiration that STEM represents as part of the amazing team at Australia’s Science Channel.

+ HOW DID YOU BECOME AN ASTRONOMER?

I have always been fascinated by the world around me, my earliest memories are of trying to understand how it worked but it wasn’t until I read Hawking’s A Brief History of Time that I realised there was a career out there where you could follow your curiosity as your job. If you want examples of careers in science and how to get into them check out the Ultimate Careers guide.

+ WHAT QUALIFICATIONS DO YOU NEED?

I obtained a Physics degree from the University of Manchester, and then a PhD in astrophysics from Jodrell Bank at the University of Manchester again but critical my qualifications had inbuilt travel. I spent a year at the University of Amsterdam in my undergrad and then nearly two years in Leiden University during my PhD, without the knowledge I gained from that travel, both about myself and my research, I could never have had the career or current role I enjoy today.

+ WHY DO YOU LOVE SCIENCE?

You get to ask “why?” of the world around you, and better yet you can find out answers! I get to sit and think about vast invisible clouds of a new type of particle known as dark matter hold our galaxy together and then wonder how we can trap it in the lab for who-knows-what future purpose. That’s an amazing career, but science is so much broader and allows you to have an amazing career investigating something equally wonderfully bizarre. Or it could be something entirely familiar to billions of people that you make work a little better to everyone’s benefit, like a new component for a smartphone or app. Science is broad. That’s why I love it. Don’t believe me? Check out the latest stories on Australia's Science Channel and just marvel at the range of incredible research in Australia!

+ WHY IS IT IMPORTANT PEOPLE STUDY STEM?

We live in an age of increasing technological sophistication where the solutions to very serious challenges in our future will require more science not less. We need the best and brightest of the next generation to go into designing, creating or implementing these future technologies. To have our best means we need to have all younger generations feel there’s a place for them in science, and that means encouraging young girls as well as boys to get into STEM. If you're a teacher and you want to help teach STEM to those young people check out our education site where we've explained the latest discoveries with Australian curriculum aligned teaching notes and resources.

+ WHAT'S YOUR FAVOURITE THING ABOUT YOUR JOB?

The variety of my job is easily the best and also worst thing as it’s both stimulating and exhausting at the same time. I can be running from a TV studio early morning, lecture physics through the day, work on simulated galaxies with my PhD students then fly off to have discussions with government and policy experts about how to improve STEM and industry in this nation. How could not love doing all that? I just wish I could do with less sleep. Maybe someone reading this can invent that?

+ HOW DO WE ENCOURAGE MORE FEMALE STUDENTS INTO STEM?

There is a disturbing and deeply seated falsehood in our society that STEM is for boys, and somehow girls aren’t interested (or worse yet capable) of pursuing it as a topic. It’s simply not fair that female students are missing out on the joy of studying science or maths, or the incredible careers to be had in engineering and technology. As a society if we hope to solve the challenges around us we need our best and brightest to work in STEM, and you won’t get that with only half the population. I believe that numerous efforts across society are required, for example the new lego female scientists campaign, the raft of new girl coding clubs and ensuring media is made aware of awesome female scientists like Prof Emma Johnston through the Superstars of STEM program. All of these collectively will slowly change the view of scientists being old, white men to instead being everyone. Targeted gender equity programmes at universities to retain more of our top female researchers from leaving are part of the other solution to ensuring younger students know they should be in science.

+ WHAT CAN SCHOOLS DO TO PREPARE STUDENTS FOR FUTURE WORK?

While it’s impossible to accurately predict the exact nature of a future role, significant numbers of which haven’t even been created, it’s fair to say that some things never change, and that’s exactly what schools should focus on. The basic laws of science, mathematics and engineering principles will only be more relevant for future roles than they are today as industries become evermore technologically advanced. Having familiarity of computer coding will be valuable, although advances in AI may require less hands on programming and more high-level guidance of self-developing code, the need to understand how it works will be critical. Having that grounding in STEM and computer science basics will be invaluable, but so too is the ability to learn. Students will have to constantly be finding out solutions, learning new skills and teaching themselves how to use as yet unimagined tools. So schools should teach the basics, but in a way that has the students learning how to learn, as then they can be ready for whatever the future jobs are like.

+ DO YOU THINK THERE'S PLANT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE?

In the last few decades we have found thousands of alien worlds, so many that we now know that on average every star in the night sky has a planet. A fifth of every Sun-like star has an Earth sized world. That means that there are billions of Earths out there. It seems inconceivable that ours is the only one in which life has arisen. What form it will take is more difficult to say. Basic single cells like bacteria seem almost certain, more complex plant based life is tougher to say. I can imagine if there is a similar plant based life (or at least something that converts starlight to food) it’s going to be incredibly varied in terms of colour – the leaves will be whatever colour is most efficient for absorbing the star’s light (and not all stars are the same colour as our Sun!)

+ WHAT PLANET WOULD YOU MOST LIKE TO VISIT?

Skimming over the rings of Saturn or plunging into Jupiter’s cloud depths to see if theories of its core being a planet-sized diamond are tempting but I’d most like to visit Earth. There are so many places I haven’t seen yet, Amazonian rainforests, depths of the Marianas Trench or frozen Antarctic icesheets. Thanks to the movement of the continents, weathering effects of an atmosphere and life itself there truly is no planet more varied and beautiful than ours.

+ WHAT'S THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU'VE EVER RECEIVED?

The legend astronomer Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson once said:

"Don't worry about being great, you can always be better - and then one day you'll wake and find out how good you actually became". I reckon that's pretty good.

+ What are some books that have made you really laugh out loud?

The Discworld series, truly every book in this collection of 40 works is comedic gold, and as you laugh at this distorted mirror held up to our world and the genre of high fantasy itself you also learn.

+ Which books have moved you the most?

The Book Thief was stunning, moving me to tears and rage and occasional hope and happiness.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman is staggering in scope and a beautiful premise, when Europeans colonized America they didn’t just bring their customs to the New World but their gods too. And I can’t say anymore than that without spoiling it but it’s intense.

+ When you were a child what did you enjoy reading?

A lot of science fiction, I basically inherited a room filled with the greats of sci-fi and devoured them all. When I was a little younger though I remember “His Dark Materials” trilogy by Philip Pullman really making an impact, I was a similar age to the protagonists and remember being amazed that the kids were actually the smart heroes in a quest of breathtaking vision, a reminder that children can be as capable as we give them space to be.

+ Did your parents read to you as a child? What did you like most about that?

My mum in particular was an avid reader and it’s thanks to her early reading to me that I developed a lifelong addiction to books. I used to love how she would read in different voices for each character, my Mum definitely missed a calling as an actor.

+ Do you write in the margins of your books, or turn down the pages to mark your place?

Turn down the pages?! Sacrilege! As for writing in the margins, I didn’t even like to get my books autographed! Books truly are beautiful things and should be kept safe to be enjoyed again and again. Besides that’s what bookmarks are for, which in fairness for me is rarely actually an official bookmark but anything I have to hand.

+ What did you think you would do for a career when you were a child?

Astronaut or scientist. My oldest memories are of wondering about the world around me, and the realization that there was a job where you could be paid to be curious about everything was a beautiful moment. Which scientific specialization, be it volcanologist, physicist or astronomer, took years to decide and at some level I still haven’t chosen. I want to do them all!

+ When did you first take an interest in the universe?

Growing up in Northern Ireland the night skies can be spectacular, and my parents have told me that even as a child I used to have my face pressed against the car window to stare out at the stars. I’ve never lost that basic curiosity.

+ Was there someone or something that inspired you to follow a career in science?

Prof Stephen Hawking was a huge figure, this impossibly clever scientist made the grandest theories of the universe accessible and (even more impressively) relevant to our everyday lives. It inspired me that physics was so much better than the rote-learning of equations in school. Now I’m actually in his field his astounding achievements have only inspired me further.

+ What is the biggest question you have about the universe that you would like to know the answer to?

The nature of Dark Matter. For every atom in the universe there’s five times more of an invisible new particle that we can only see from its gravitational effect on the world around it. It has gravity so has mass, but doesn’t interact with light so is fundamentally invisible, so somewhat unoriginally we call it Dark Matter. Without it the galaxies themselves wouldn’t form, yet we still have no idea what it is. My entire research career has involved dark matter in some way or another and I’m getting impatient! In Australia we’re building the worlds first dark matter detector in the Southern Hemisphere at the bottom of a gold mine. Soon I hope to actually see it in the lab and finally know what this mysterious new particle is.

+ Given the opportunity to travel to any place in the universe where would you like to go and what would you like to see?

Telescopes are like time-machines as we see objects as they were when the light first left them not as they are now. So I’d like to go with a giant telescope around the galaxy and look back at the most beautiful planet in the galaxy, Earth, and see history unfold. One thing has bugged me for years, did an apple really drop on Newton’s head? Legend says ‘maybe’, I reckon not but I can finally know for sure by travelling a few hundred light years away and looking back at Earth.

+ What is the most common question that people ask you and more importantly what is the answer?

Do you believe in aliens? To which I reply, how could you not? We now know that every star in the night sky has on average a planet around it. That every fifth Sun-like star has a world the size of Earth, in all those tens of billions of potentially habitable worlds how could ours be the only one that is inhabited? I’m much less confident about intelligent life being out there, some days I’m not entirely convinced it’s even arisen here on Earth. The follow up question about whether I believe in UFOs visiting us is a totally different answer- NO!

+ What do you enjoy most about working in your field?

Getting to chat with fantastically smart and curious colleagues, as well as being able to indulge my own curiosity about the world around me. Seriously, it’s the best job.

+ What book would you recommend for general reading adults to read about astronomy?

I'll cheat and pick two but really they're the same underlying vision... Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" and "Black Holes and Baby Universes". These are fantastic introductions to Black Holes and the extremes of nature at the Big Bang, something I've obsessively been trying to understand since! More generally, it made me realise that this insanely complex and wonderful world can be understood by just a handful of simple equations. Ultimately there may even be just one. How could I say no to studying that?

+ What books would you recommend to younger readers to inspire them to take an interest in the stars?

"A Space Odyssey" series by Arthur C Clarke, if you can only read one, read the first "2001: A Space Odyssey. It covers everything from evolution to aliens to space travel. The latter is particularly scientifically accurate as Clarke had an astronomy background!

One more by Arthur C Clarke "Rendezvous with Rama", a breathtaking vision of a 'generation ship' that is most likely how we may one day travel between the stars.

Isaac Asimov's "Foundation Series", a fantastic vision that mathematics and the science method is applicable to any field, even history and predicting the future of humanity!

"Flatland" by Edwin Abbott Abbott. Written 130 years ago (and before Einstein!) yet does a better job of explaining higher dimensions and curved spacetime than anything since, through picturing a world with one less dimension "Flatland".

+ Hypothetically, if given the opportunity to have a dinner party for six and invite anyone you choose, alive or dead, from anywhere in the world, who would they be?

The author Ian M Banks who tragically he died recently but his works are just so wonderful I reread them all in his honor and fell in love with “The Culture” all over again.

The comedian Amy Schumer, she’s wickedly funny and at the moment I can’t get enough of her shows in which she so effortlessly shows up the twisted morals and values of our society.

The colossus of Victorian-era engineering Isambard Kingdom Brunel who, more perhaps than any other, single-handedly created the modern world as we know it today.

Elon Musk, the modern day Brunel, who is reshaping power (with his solar companies), travel (with his Tesla electric cars) and space exploration (with SpaceX his rocket company). I’d make sure Elon and Isambard sat next to each other but near enough to me so that I could just listen.

It goes without saying Hawking would have to be there too of course, what scientist’s wish-list dinner party would be complete without him? Finally, while I’d love to see Einstein there I actually would choose

Emily Noether, she’s one of the greatest scientists/mathematicians of the early 20th century and was treated appalling badly by male colleagues, yet against all these challenges her accomplishments (Noether’s theorem in particular) are amongst the most beautiful in physics. Also I hear she was a mean dancer and every party needs a boogey to finish.

+ Where do you do most of your reading?

Travelling. Plane, train or tram, I spend a lot of my time rushing from meetings, conferences, the occasional trip to a telescope and studios. What better way to use this time than enter another world with a book in hand?

+ Do you use an e-reader?

No but for a while I read off my iPhone 5S screen, and after nearly going blind decided I’d stick to paper for now, but if I happen to get one from Santa then I’ll give it a crack.