I can't believe it's the final day already :-(
I went to Loreto Grammar School in a town called Altrincham, just south of Manchester. We had to wear some pretty hideous blazers… In 1999 I went to Bristol Uni to study Physics and I was there for four years. In 2003 I started my PhD at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, where I met some of the most awesome people in radio astronomy.
After I finished my PhD I stayed in Cambridge for a couple of years to finish building a new telescope, then I moved to Ireland where I worked at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies (DIAS). While I was there I got to take part in the flight testing for part of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which was lots of fun.
Reader in Radio Astronomy
University of Southampton
Favourite thing to do in my job Solving problems. Not only finding a new solution to an unanswered question, but also working out the right question to ask in the first place.
I’m part of the team building the world’s largest radio telescope.
If you look up at the sky during the night (and it’s not too cloudy) then you can see thousands of stars and galaxies. The reason that you can see them is because they emit optical light and that’s what your eyes are able to detect. But they’re not the only things out there – space is filled with all kinds of weird and wonderful objects, but most of them don’t emit optical light, so you can’t see them with your eyes.
The highest energy objects in the Universe emit radio light – just a different wavelength to optical light – and to see them we need to build radio telescopes. Why? Because the radio sky is beautiful. And full of information about things we can’t see with our eyes.
Radio telescopes work in a different way to optical telescopes. Optical telescopes are basically a souped-up version of your digital camera. If you have one radio antenna (probably a big dish like the one at Jodrell Bank) then it will tell you the amount of radio power coming from a particular direction on the sky and you need to move it back and forth across the sky to weave together a picture of the thing producing that power. If you have lots of radio antennas (an array of dishes) then you’re really in business. Then you have a “radio interferometer”, also known as a “synthesis telescope”. A radio interferometer collects signals from each pair of dishes in the array and can combine them to make a picture directly. To do that you still need to do a load of computer processing though and the bigger your telescope, the bigger your data…
The radio interferometer that I’m helping to build will be bigger than anything we have at the moment. The bit made from dishes will produce ten times more data than the whole of the world internet right now… The bit made from aperture arrays will produce one hundred times more data! (Don’t know what an aperture array is? Ask me!) If you tried to play back a day’s worth of data from this telescope on your iPod it would take you two million years. That’s a long song.
And that’s Big Data.
My Typical Day
This doesn’t exist… every day is different.
What I'd do with the money
Fund a student to work on a data analysis project for a social cause.
Lots of the work we do developing algorithms and data analysis tools in astronomy is funded through public money. BUT those same algorithms and tools are just as useful for many different kinds of application (that’s why so many astrophysics students end up working in the financial industry).
I’m finding ways to use the work we do in astronomy and other blue skies science to help out charities and social organisations to use their data to benefit the public. So I would put this money towards a fellowship for a science student to work on a data analysis project for a social cause.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Determined. Curious. Clumsy.
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Climbed to the top of the Green Bank Telescope – right up the arm. It was also terrifying.
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
All the people I met along the way – teachers, lecturers, colleagues – everyone!
Were you ever in trouble at school?
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
Who is your favourite singer or band?
At the moment? Nicki Minaj. Ridiculous, I know, but true.
What's your favourite food?
Toast and marmite.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Trekking across the Himalayas.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
Discover something ground-breaking. Run a marathon in under 3.5 hours. Stay healthy.
Tell us a joke.
Why did the cat slide off the roof? Because it didn’t have enough mu.
This is where I work normally in Southampton, but this week I’m at the New York University campus in Abu Dhabi.
This is an artist’s impression of what the telescope I’m designing at the moment will look like when it’s built:
People have been asking what things look like to radio telescopes. This is a picture of the radio emission from Cygnus A, which is the brightest radio source in the sky. If you make a optical image of Cygnus A it just has that little dot right in the centre – the rest of it is only visible using radio telescopes! We didn’t know that those huge jets were there!
This is me giving a lecture…
…and these are two of my PhD students, Alex & Chris, out and about doing astrodome shows at local schools.