SpineOut : October November 2015
When you were a child, what did you think you would end up doing for a career? Astronaut or scientist. My oldest memories are of wondering about the world around me, and the realisation that there was a job where you could be paid to be curious about everything was a beautiful moment. Which scientific specialisation – 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? The night skies in Northern Ireland 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. If you could 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 Isaac 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’s 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 it has mass, but it doesn’t interact with light so it’s fundamentally invisible. So somewhat unoriginally we call it dark matter. Without it the galaxies 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 world’s 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. Was there someone who inspired you to follow a career in science? 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 made me realise 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.
August September 2015
December January 2016