That live chat session was frantic, but great. Well done everyone!
Christian Brothers School, Tramore (2003-2009), University College Cork (2009-Present), University of Notre Dame (2013-Present)
BSc Astrophysics (Hons)
Dooleys Fish & Chips (2007-2009), Blackrock Castle Observatory (2010-2012), European Space Agency (2012)
University College Cork/ Naughton Foundation
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.
I’m a very simple person who likes to solve puzzles.
I live with 2 other physics PhD students (one who works in quantum mechanics, and the other who works with black holes) in Cork. Imagine the Big Bang Theory, but with less laughter and more video games.
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 (which is not very often), I spend a lot of time playing boardgames like Catan, reading books or playing games on my laptop (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”.
I work on Cataclysmic Variables, which are systems that have 2 stars in them, and every now and again, they explode!
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.
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 typically get out of bed around 8 a.m. and do a quick work out, to keep in shape and stay healthy. I have my breakfast (typically some couscous with honey and oranges) and I’m in the office by 10 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 next door to my supervisors office and we’ll talk about what it could possibly mean.
Lunch is at 12:30 a.m., every day. A group of us regularly have lunch together, and we all study very different fields. 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 5:30 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 with my housemates, and we’ll typically play a few video games or watch a movie before heading to bed around 11 p.m.
What I'd do with the money
I would like to spend the money on creating a science podcast, where myself and a few friends of mine can talk about current science.
About 2 years ago, a friend of mine and I started a radio show on UCC 98.3 fm called Black Holes & Revelations. The show focused on talking about various topics in science and technology, with the hope of explaining very complex topics to the public, with a bit of humour thrown in for good measure.
Unfortunately, our radio show ended in May 2016. Since then, we’ve decided to start a podcast around the same idea – have a 30 minute show where we talk about science news, or interesting topics, in a friendly format. We already have some microphones, and have recorded our first show (about an exoplanet called Proxima B). But, the cost to launch this podcast is relatively high – we need a website, better microphones and some money to buy some adverts. I’d like to use the money to get ourselves a website and help publicise our podcast a bit more.
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 working in my office currently. The walls have various pictures of space on them to cheer us up while we work. We also currently have a small telescope in for repairs on the main desk. There’s a white board for us to work on ideas (and also a place to write up our rules for Cake Friday) and a book shelf for the various reference books we need.
My computer is in the furthest corner from the door, right beside an image of the Hubble Space Telescope (which is appropriate, since I’ve used data from this telescope previously).
I also spend some time working on sight at various telescopes. Typically, once a year I go to Mount Graham International Observatory in Azriona, USA, and work with the 1.8 meter Vatican Advanced Technology (VATT) Telescope and the 8.4 meter Large Binocular Telescope (LBT). Below is the control room for the VATT, and below that again is when I visited the LBT 2 years ago.