Research Lives: ‘It’s a golden era of astronomy’

Dr Niall Smith of Cork Institute of Technology and Blackrock Castle Observatory talks about his career – and love of ELO

“I also feel enormously privileged that I get to look at things we could not have seen or understood in the same way 50 years ago”

“I also feel enormously privileged that I get to look at things we could not have seen or understood in the same way 50 years ago”

 

You are involved in the search for exoplanets. Tell us more

Yes, we now reckon there are trillions of planets in the universe beyond our solar system. These extra-solar or exoplanets orbit around stars other than our sun, and the hunt is on to find planets that could support life. There are a few ways of detecting these faraway planets, and one is to look for a slight dip in the light coming from a star as an exoplanet crosses the light’s path. The Kepler spacecraft, which is out in space, has detected thousands of exoplanets, but we want to come up with better ways of spotting these tiny dips in light using telescopes here on Earth.

Why is it so hard to detect exoplanets from Earth?

We have this pesky thing called the atmosphere . . . Well, it’s handy if you want to live and breathe, but not so handy for seeing exoplanets, because it distorts the light coming from space. You know when you look at a star and it twinkles? That’s the atmosphere distorting the starlight. This twinkling makes it harder to pick up the tiny dips caused by exoplanets, so we use a combination of a high-speed camera and data analysis to reduce that atmospheric distortion.

You de-twinkle starlight?

Yes.

How’s that going?

It works. I remember one of the first times we tested the method at Blackrock Castle Observatory, we started using the standard method with the telescope and we couldn’t see any sign of an exoplanet in the light curve. Then we applied our technique to remove atmospheric distortion and out jumped a dip caused by an exoplanet. It was a really great moment.

So, will humans live on an exoplanet?

Even the closest exoplanets are several light years away, so that wouldn’t happen any time soon – but I hope that within my lifetime humans will be living on our moon, and possibly on Mars. The first human born somewhere other than Earth would be an enormous milestone, but there are huge challenges to biology there.

When you aren’t de-twinkling stars and finding exoplanets, what do you do?

I really enjoy spending time with my family and friends, and I like having a chat with people over a pint about big questions and not always looking for the scientific answers. My wife and I love ballroom dancing, and I am a big fan of ELO. I was at the gig in Dublin earlier this month and it exceeded even my extremely high expectations.

Nice. Can we call you Dr Blue Sky?

No comment.

What gets you out of bed in the morning to do your research?

I think it’s the idea that you could find something new today; it doesn’t have to be a huge new advancement, often little discoveries or putting pieces of the puzzle together can tell you something really interesting. I also feel enormously privileged that I get to look at things we could not have seen or understood in the same way 50 years ago. There have been so many discoveries in astronomy in recent decades. It’s a golden era to be working in it.

What would you do if you weren’t a scientist?

Guitarist with ELO. Obviously.

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