Reaching for the stars in Australia
Astronomer Alan Duffy has found amazing star-gazing opportunities Down Under
I grew up in Co Antrim. My parents were divorced, so in the car travelling between their houses I’d always have my face up against the glass, staring up at the night sky.
Later I discovered science fiction and read Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. There was always a kernel of scientific truth in the stories. After reading Stephen Hawking I used to discuss how black holes worked. I was a bit of a precocious teenager.
A teacher at Ballyclare High asked us what we wanted to be, and I had just seen Dante’s Peak, with Pierce Brosnan, so I said I wanted to be a vulcanologist or an astronomer.
An element of that choice was a desire for escape from Northern Ireland and the terrifyingly mundane tit-for-tat murders. I used to watch the yearly marching-season riots near my place and think nothing more than that the blockaded roads made it hard to get to things. It’s terrifying how that can become normal.
In another effort to escape I left Northern Ireland to study physics at the University of Manchester, taking options to study superfluid superconductors, astronomy and particle physics.
Looking for opportunities abroad took me to the outback of Western Australia, to work on the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, the first stage of the largest telescope on Earth. I thought I’d only be away for a couple of years. Before I left my mum said she was so proud, and wished me well, but that I’d meet an Australian girl and never come back. I told her that wouldn’t happen, but within a year it did – and I’m about to become an Australian citizen.
I’m now an astrophysicist and science communicator. I investigate how galaxies form, as well as studying the larger properties of the universe, and try to explain it to as wide an audience as possible. When I go to schools I talk about Australia’s astronomical heritage. The Aborigines were incredibly advanced astronomers.
Australia is special for many reasons. Economically, it weathered the global financial crisis better than most countries, so it was able to continue funding astronomy. It also had a grand plan; it really wanted to position itself in this field. You want to be in a country that values what you do.
From an astronomy point of view, Australia is very special because from here you get to see the entire Milky Way. But I still think the best night sky I ever saw was in the Blue Stack Mountains of Donegal. I saw shooting stars and meteors, and I eventually realised I was seeing the Northern Lights, the aurora borealis. It just so happened that a huge solar flare had hit Earth and made some of the largest, brightest Northern Lights in decades.
All my family is now in Scotland or England, and almost all of my friends have left Northern Ireland, too. Never say never, but I have no plans to leave Australia any time soon. A combination of lifestyle and the scientific climate means there’s no better country to be in than Australia.
In conversation with Pádraig Collins