Working at home is difficult, particularly with most astronomical facilities shut down, but that's a small price to pay for peoples safety.
Christian Brothers School, Tramore (2003-2009), University College Cork (2009-2017), University of Notre Dame (2013-2017)
PhD, BSc Astrophysics (Hons)
Dooleys Fish & Chips (2007-2009), Blackrock Castle Observatory (2010-2012), European Space Agency (2012)
I'm a Post Doctoral researcher working on measuring the masses of neutron stars
I work at Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics (JBCA) within the University of Manchester. JBCA is responsible for operating the Lovell radio telescope.
Favourite thing to do in science: Working on the night shift of a telescope run is probably my favourite thing. It’s both a very peaceful (due to the lack of people) and very exciting (due to the ever-changing night sky) time.
About Me: I'm an inquisitive person who likes to solve puzzles.
I live in Manchester with my fiancée, who used to be a radio astronomer.
I became interested in astrophysics after going to Kennedy Space Centre in Florida when I was 10. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by the night sky, and what weird systems exist in the Universe.
When not working, I spend a lot of time playing board games like Catan, reading books or playing video games (even researchers have to de-stress after a long day of unraveling the mysteries of the Universe).
I also spend a lot of time traveling and seeing different parts of the world. This is one of the perks of being a scientist – you often know people in many different countries, and you never need an excuse to go see them other than “It’s for work”.
My Work: I study the remnant cores of stars which ended their life thousands to millions of years ago. There are 3 different types of cores - white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes, and tell us about how stars in the Universe evolve.
Our Sun is about 4.6 billion years old, and is about half way through its life. In another 4.6 billion years, it will run out of fuel, and will eventually turn into a very small object called a White Dwarf. These objects are about as massive as the Sun (190,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg, which can also be written as 1.9e30 kgs.), but they are only the size of Earth (which is only 5.9e24 kgs)! That’s a lot of mass to fit in a very tiny space.
We call a system that has 2 objects which are orbiting each other a binary star system (binary meaning 2). When one of the stars in a binary is a White Dwarf, and the other star is a normal star like the Sun, then the White Dwarf starts to eat the normal star. These systems are called Cataclysmic Variables, and it’s these systems that I study.
As the White Dwarf gathers material from the normal star, a disk of material will form around the White Dwarf, and the system will become bright in the night sky. Eventually, the White Dwarf will have gathered enough material that it’ll fuse a whole lot of material on its surface together, and will explode. This is called a Nova eruption, and is typically how we find these objects in the night sky.
In recent years, I’ve also started working on systems that have Neutron Stars instead of White Dwarfs. These Neutron stars are even more exotic than White dwarfs, as they can be more massive than the Sun, but fit tidily inside of Cork city. My current work focuses on two particular types of neutron star systems – “redbacks” and “black widows”. These neutron stars have been spun up to very rapid periods by consuming a nearby donor star, and are now so powerful that they are destroying their companions.
My Typical Day: I spend a lot of time sitting at my computer, staring at photos and images of space, trying to make sense of it all. I also spend a lot of time running code on my laptop and also on the more powerful machines we have in the department (which we call Hulk and Black Widow).
I typically get out of bed around 8 a.m. I have my breakfast and I’m in the office by 9 a.m. My first job in work every morning is to read the arXiv (pronounced archive). This is a website that has all of the new science papers in physics on it, and lets me keep up-to-date with whats happening in the world (if you’d like read todays papers, go here. There are a lot of new papers every day).
After checking the arXiv, I normally have a cup of tea, think about my plan for the day and have a chat with my office mates. Most days, I have to examine data that we took using a telescope a few months previously. Examining the data means I use a lot of computer coding, particularly using the coding language called python. If any of the data show interesting results, I’ll go to my bosses office and we’ll talk about what it could possibly mean.
Lunch is at 12:30 a.m., every day. Our department has lunch together, with people wondering in any time between 12:30 and 2:00 pm. Over lunch, we generally chat about how everyone’s day is going, and what work they’re doing.
Then, from 1:30 p.m. until 5:00 p.m., it’s more computer programming and writing papers (with the occasional cup of tea and conversation about the mystery of the Universe thrown in for good measure). After leaving work, I’ll have dinner, and then typically unwind by playing a few games or watching some TV (right now we’re rewatching Star Trek: The Next Generation).
Tuesdays are a bit different. On a Tuesday, our research group travels to Jodrell Bank where the Lovell radio telescope is located. This is so we can keep in touch with the people who work at the telescope, and also so that we can have a science lunch. During this lunch, people discuss their work, 1 person will discuss an interesting object in the sky, and 1 person will present the results on a recently published paper. Going to Jodrell is a good way of getting out of the city and into the countryside for the day. But because the radio telescope is so sensitive, the entire site is a radio free zone, which means we have to turn off our phones for the day and can’t use WiFi on our laptops to connect to the internet for work.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Focused, Funny, Fascinated
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
A good green thai curry
What is the most fun thing you've done?
I’ve skydived from 3000 ft solo.
What did you want to be after you left school?
An astrophysicist (nice how that’s worked out for me)
Were you ever in trouble at school?
What was your favourite subject at school?
Physics (again, funny how that works).
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
I once co-ordinated observations between a telescope in Arizona and a telescope orbiting the Earth
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
Jeff Williams (a former astronaut) and my physics teacher from secondary school, Damien Foley.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
I reckon I’d be very happy to work in a bookshop, or I’d like to be a chef.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1) I wish I could go to space. It’s been a dream of mine since childhood to be an astronaut. There’s still hope yet. 2) I wish I had a dog for company. My current lifestyle as a researcher makes it difficult to have a pet. 3) I wish I could make my own chocolate easily.
Tell us a joke.
It was raining cats and dogs the other day. I stepped in a poodle.
There are 4 people who work in my office, all of whom work on the same topic as me. There’s a white board for us to work on ideas and a book shelf for the various reference books we need.
I also spend some time working on sight at various telescopes. Typically, once a year I go to La Silla Observatory in Chile, and work with the 3.9 meter New Technology Telescope. Below are photos of my last visit to the observatory