Astronomer

What do you do for a living? 

Build instruments (cameras and spectrometers) which take astronomy pictures, using the telescopes at the worlds major observatories, both on mountaintop sites and in space.

 

How did you get interested in what you do? What advice was available to you when you chose this career direction?

If I were being sentimental I would say it was by reading ‘Dr H C King’s Book of Astronomy’ when I was about 9. The truth is that I was interested in learning about how the physical world works, from atoms to stars, from the same sort of age. 

 

What was your journey to reach the role you are in today? 

School in central London, which meant O-levels and A-levels when I was young. I scraped though my non-science O-levels (French, History, Geography), but did pretty well on the 4-5 sciences (Physics, Maths and Chemistry etc) and I followed these through to A-level where I got A, B, and C (pass) grades in each. I was, and still am, attracted to the analysis and understanding of phenomena by mathematics. It was at university that it really took off. I spent the first year (3 years Physics at Machester in 1980) seeing a lot of bands, going to a lot of parties, and doing very little work. I really got excited by the understanding physics gives you about the real world in years 2 and 3 and it was in year 3 that my knowledge of how everything works peaked; this was a great experience. I have been specialising ever since, so after a few months particle physics at CERN, I chose astronomy because it involved more travel to more exotic parts of the world (Australia, Hawaii and the south-west USA).

 

Talk me through a day in your life... what sorts of things would it involve?

 Staring at a screen. Writing computer programmes and using software tools to answer physics problems – will my camera be sensitive enough to detect an exo-planet? Can the telescope point accurately enough, if not, can we get around the limitation some other way? Writing reports and making powerpoint shows then discussing them at meetings to plan and review the design, build, test and operation of astronomical instruments. Then I travel around Europe and the US doing the same thing. Only about 10 % of my time is actually spent in labs, clean rooms or engineering hangars running tests on real hardware and working with technicians to fix problems, but this happens in intensive ‘campaigns’ where I may be on call ~ 24 hours a day (May to August 2011 and all of October 2013, say). I also supervise one or two secondary school and undergraduate students for a few weeks each year and give a handful of public lectures.  

 

Was it your planned career when you were 18?

Yes. 

 

What did your mum and dad want you to do?

Something that interested me.

 

What advice would you give to someone interested in your career?

Enthusiasm and curiosity are more important than brains.  If you have both of these you will find it relatively easy to learn the mathematical language you need to build or discover something truly new.  Assertiveness is no substitute for enthusiasm, curiosity or brains but it will help you manage other people’s work if that is what you are really interested in. 

 

What other directions could you go in /work in within your field other than the job you have chosen?

I am quite late in my career now. 20 years ago I could have moved into R+D in medical, defence or any other high tech field, but at this stage it is more a case of moving to another institute to do the same thing; so I could work for ESA (European Space Agency) in The Netherlands, or for NASA in the US, or ESO (the European Southern Observatory) in Germany or Chile. In all cases, I could earn a lot more money (ESO and ESA offer tax free salaries).  However, I have much more autonomy working at the observatory in Edinburgh than I would have elsewhere. I have always regarded my career as fun and I want to carry on that way. My underlying scientific interest is in the detection of extra-terrestrial life and the observatory has allowed me to choose projects which fit in with that goal. 

The main role of big science lies in being the inspiration of young scientists and engineers. 

I supervise S5/6 students as part of the ‘Nuffield Bursary’ scheme. I have a student in place this year from Dunbar, but I would be happy to take students from Peebles if there is any interest. The project topic for my current student will be to evaluate the detectability of transiting exo-planets using the James Webb Space Telescope.