On keeping a close eye on sunspots

Research lives: Prof Peter Gallagher, head of astrophysics at Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS)

Prof Peter Gallagher: As a kid I was always taking apart TVs and fixing bikes. I even set up a lab in my room when I was about 10

Prof Peter Gallagher: As a kid I was always taking apart TVs and fixing bikes. I even set up a lab in my room when I was about 10


You are a solar physicist – what does that entail?

I’m interested in the physics of how the Sun works, and I’m particularly interested in sunspots and solar flares. Sunspots burst into the surface of the Sun and they store lots of energy.

Sometimes they erupt, and this explosion or flare is like an elastic band snapping – the magnetic fields snap and catapult protons and electrons through space at hundreds of thousands of kilometres per second. Within minutes this highly-charged material reaches Earth, and we depend on a magnetic layer in our atmosphere, the ionosphere, to protect us from it.

How do you monitor sunspots and flares?

We use ground-based telescopes on Earth, and we collect data from telescopes that are out in space too. We have magnetic sensors in the ground in Birr, Co Offaly, and Valentia, Co Kerry, and Armagh and at DIAS, and they can detect when Earth’s magnetic umbrella is pinged by material coming from the Sun.

Why do you want to know the physics behind these sunbursts?

The practical answer is that by understanding more about how they work, we can help to forecast when solar activity could damage satellites orbiting Earth. We depend on these satellites for communications and GPS and power networks, and knowing a solar storm is imminent would allow us to take steps to protect them.

But the bigger answer for me as a scientist, as human being, is that quest to understand what we don’t understand. It’s the curiosity and discovery that drives me. I am fascinated by understanding why the technology fails, but I am a solar physicist – it is up to me to understand the physics of what goes on in these eruptions.

Have you always been interested in physics?

As a kid I was always taking apart TVs and fixing bikes. I even set up a lab in my room when I was about 10. I wasn’t great at primary school though, I didn’t read much, I wrote poorly and I also struggled with maths.

In secondary school I was probably more interested in playing my guitar and working out chords from the latest Metallica album. But then something clicked with maths, and I went on to study physics in college.

What is your biggest motivation?

I think it’s seeing projects grow. For many years I wanted to set up a radio telescope in Ireland, and we eventually got funding to build I-LOFAR in Birr. Just having it here has built up a community of scientists in Ireland who use it and who work with international scientists to monitor stars and galaxies.

You are married to zoologist Prof Emma Teeling. Is your home full of science?

Science is definitely woven through our lives. It is part of both of us, though we do spend a lot of time having non-scientific conversations about the kids’ football or the dogs – or the credit card bill.

I think it helps for each of us to understand why the other might need to travel for their work, or to stay up late writing a grant application ahead of the deadline.

And what’s your big project at the moment?

I want to make DIAS Dunsink Observatory more of a destination for the public. It’s an iconic scientific building. It was founded in the 1780s, it’s a huge part of our heritage in Ireland and it’s close to the M50.

We still have working telescopes there and people actively researching astronomy on the site. For the next few years I am on a mission to make it a place that more people want to visit.