Astronomy in the city – a gravitational wave special


We held a special Astronomy in the city event yesterday to celebrate the announcement of the first direct detection of a gravitational wave last week.

It was insane how after less than a week we had a completely sold out event, with 460 sign ups! So it was fantastic that we were able to make use of the Elgar concert hall to host the event.

We had special talks from Dr Christopher Berry, Dr Conor Mow-lowry, Dr Walter del Pozzo, Dr Will Farr and Dr Alberto Sesana. Many of the students/staff from the gravitational wave group at the University of Birmingham helped out too. It’s very rare that you could gather so many gravitational wave experts in a public space at the same time!

Below is a video I made of the event, and also of our Michelson interferometer that will be on display at the Think Tank, Birmingham in the coming months. Enjoy!

The first direct detection of gravitational waves


Gravitational waves are ripples in space and time, emitted by asymmetrically accelerating sources such as black hole binaries. They were first predicted by Einstein, 100 years ago and is the only theory of his yet to be proven.

Yesterday was a big day for Gravitational Wave astronomy, the laser interferometer gravitational wave observatory (LIGO) announced the first ever direct detection of a gravitational wave emitted by the first ever observation of a binary of Kerr (spinning) black holes. You can read their papers here

The University of Birmingham astrophysics group are involved both in the detectors and the analysis within LIGO so I made this video to commemorate the day,

How to get a job in Astronomy


I’ll be finishing my PhD soon and as this approaches, let me tell you this… STRESS. I should be focussing on writing up right now, NOT worrying about the stability of my future. But if you find yourself in a similar situation then hopefully this post can come in helpful.

When I first started my PhD, my supervisor warned me I probably couldn’t stay in academia. In general academia employs a fixed number of staff, so if you want to stay in academia, then you will be waiting on a faculty member to leave. My supervisor had over 50 students before he retired, this means that on average 1/50 PhD students would get a job in academia. What’s worse is that of the 15 faculty in my research group, 0 are women.

I recently attended a student research conference and it was really nice to see the lined up keynote ‘Post-doc jobs in Astronomy’ – it lied. The entire talk was focussed on how I will ‘never’ get a permanent job in Astronomy. According to the talk out of 120 PhDs, 60 will go on to have post-docs, and <10 will get permanent positions. People are now spending longer in post-docs so expect to spend 6+ years without a permanent position and moving jobs every few years, that is if you can get one. Longer post-docs mean that we are competing against more people with more experience.

So I am going to tell you the opposite. You will get a job in Astronomy if you want one, and I will help you make that decision, with the following guide:

Choice making time:


– You survived and proved all those who doubted you wrong.
– You can work your way up to Professorship
– Flexible work hours
– Outreach is encouraged!

– If you like research, then this one isn’t the choice for you. Academics do most of their research through their students. Most of their time will be spent on teaching and paperwork.
– It will take along time to work your way to your top, and you will spend a long time in contract before you get the permanent position
– You may have to relocate several times before you settle down.
– It may be difficult to buy a house without a credit rating with all the moving around

Fellowships – These are highly competitive, usually the more prestigious ones will lead to permanent positions. Some are assigned to a specific institution but some allow you choose where you do the research. The great thing about fellowships is that you have the freedom to do the research you want to do, and are in charge of your money. The not so great thing is that the applications involve a lot of input and you need to be self-dependent. The fellowships that allow you to choose universe will usually also require you to first contact that University and you will need to rely on them to help you complete the application.

Examples: Marie curie, Astrofit2, STFC Rutherford, NASA Hubble, ESA, ESO, Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, Newton international, Leverhulme Early Career, Royal Society, Junior research fellowships at Universities such as Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial.

Research Associate – Positions advertised by individual university departments. These usually involve you working on specific research set out by your boss. These are advertised at each University approximately every 3 years when their consolidated grant round comes in.
These jobs are usually advertised on the AAS job register


– No teaching
– Full time research
– Usually get to try out lots of areas of science
– Easier to climb to equivalent of Professor role
– Usually higher salary than post-docs

– Won’t get Professorship
– 9-5 job
– You won’t be an expert in any one thing
– Many are located abroad where the research is collected

Try the AAS job register, STFC, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory


– Won’t need to relocate
– High salary
– Your work will probably be more applied
– Permanent position

– 9-5 job
– May or may not be in your research area but will utilise the skills you picked up


Other things to think about:
– Its difficult to stay in academia if you have a partner because you will be moving every few years. It will be even harder if you are both in academia…

– Will you be happy to start a life somewhere away from your friends and family?

– Make sure your CV is optimised for your job. Don’t include too much public engagement activities unless outreach is part of the job description.
– Apply for as many things as you can, but only the ones you want. Usually this will take a month out of your life!
– Use your networking to your advantage. Contact people you know to ask if they know any jobs going? They will usually help you out.
– Ask your supervisor/collaborators to look over your research proposal, they can help you improve!

I will keep updating this as I think of more so please check back now and again. Hope this was useful.

My review of the Martian – Beware of spoilers!


The Martian
Last night, I was invited to an expert panel screening of the Martian, complementary of The Odeon and the British Interplanetary Society.

Overall I really liked the movie. It is a feel good movie, with a great soundtrack. It is educational and the CGI of Mars was beautiful (in particular the dust devils!). Most importantly it is inspiring to the current generation of future Marstronauts. Mars is definitely a popular topic right now.

So I guess as a physics geek, let’s discuss the scientific flaws of the movie –

1. Mark Watney at the start of the movie gets bashed around by a horrific sand storm. In part this is true – Mars has global dust storms that engulf the entire planet. However dust storms on Mars are harmless due to its lack of atmosphere. It would feel like a light breeze.

2. In the movie the space transit vehicle Hermes has an awesome centrifuge to mimic gravity – in theory this could create an artificial gravity. In reality, a centrifuge with a small radius would have a diverse effects on the gravitational gradient. In other words, the gravity they feel at their head would be a lot stronger than what they feel at their feet. If you look at the graph below, you can see that the radius of the centrifuge would need to be of the order 1000 meters in order for the gravity to be consistent over a distance a few meters. This just isn’t feasible right now because of the cost to launch and the amount of energy required to power such a space craft.

Number of revolutions per minute as a function of radius of centrifuge required to create the same gravitational force we feel on Earth

Number of revolutions per minute as a function of radius of centrifuge required to create the same gravitational force we feel on Earth

3. When Mark Watney begins his Martian farm, he takes soil from the upper Martian surface. Bad idea! The soil on the surface is completely exposed to radiation and is riddled with perchlorates. Not only would this is would mean that the potatoes he grew are toxic, but even touching the soil wouldn’t be good for you! Watney would need to use soil about 5m below the surface to get similar radiation levels to that we have on Earth.

4. What’s more I doubt the potatoes would survive in such lack of light, Mars is 50% further away from the Sun compared to Earth so efficient LED lighting is crucial. On the topic of sunlight, the lack of solar panels was slightly worrying… if you compare to the ISS, it hosts 2500 sq meters of solar panels!

5. Water. There’s plenty of it on Mars, frozen in the soil. If you were to melt all the ice on Mars, there would be enough water to cover the entire surface. So it seems a bit silly that Watney didn’t just extract water from the soil.

Despite this, it’s not a scientific documentary so I don’t expect all the science to true but they do a relatively good job at it. I think the Martian was a great movie and I quite enjoyed it!

Astronaut Andreas Mogensen


Earlier this week I visited ESA’s European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, Germany. I’ve been very fortunate for this to be the 3rd time I have been to facility. The last time was pretty cool – I mean, it’s not every day you get a personal tour by ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen, especially whilst he’s preparing to go to space!

Well last week, Andreas Mogensen finally made his debut space flight to the international space station. For those of you who don’t know much about Andreas, here’s 5 facts that you really ought to know:

1. He was joined the European Astronaut Corps in 2009 and has been training for 6 years for his 10 day journey aboard the ISS

2. He is the 1st astronaut from Denmark and to celebrate the Danish company LEGO made 20 custom LEGO figurines to keep him company whilst in space. The LEGO toys will be prizes to kids that can come up with the best video of Andreas’ story

3. Originally his trip to the ISS was supposed to take 6 hours but instead it took 2 days to avoid space junk, that’s a long time to be stuck in the Soyuz – It’s a 5th the size of the shuttle orbiter!

4. When Andreas and fellow crew members boarded the ISS, they brought the total number of inhabitants up to 9. The ISS was only built for 6 astronauts!

5. His main task is of course science. These include testing a new water-cleaning system, hands-free goggles similar to google-glass, a tight-fitting suit that mimics the effects of gravity and controlling rovers on Earth to prepare for future missions on Mars.

At EAC, I was given the opportunity to sit in on a conference call with the ISS and space agencies from around the world. It was unbelievable that I was on a LIVE chat to all 9 astronauts in space! Space has never seemed more close than in that moment and it is a memory that I will cherish always. Follow Andreas’ journey on twitter @Astro_Andreas.

Quarantine in Baikonur

3 nights as an astronomer


Welcome to Chile!


I had the rare opportunity to go observing on the 4m Blanco telescope on Cerro Tololo, Chile. The telescope itself was built in the 70’s so its mind blowing that it is still functional today. This telescope like many other similar oldies are constantly given new life with the instalments of new instruments. Right now, that would be DECam, a CCD imager who’s scientific purpose is to understand the cosmic acceleration.

I took the evening shuttle up mountain, with wild horses, goats and cacti of all shapes and sizes making appearances along the way. It is amazing the infrastructure they have in place here. The roads carved into the endless ripples of dry, desert hills. The journey took about 1.5hrs from the local town La Serena but would’ve taken a lot longer on donkey-back as they did back in the day. The facility on the mountain was impressive, it was fully equipped with internet, water and electricity and the meals were delicious. Every night whilst observing, the cooks would prepare us a night lunch – it was definitely needed. It’s currently winter in Chile which means the nights are long.


In between the hills you can clearly see the fog that is the inversion layer.


Evening twilight on Cerro Tololo, both observatories shown aren’t the ones I worked in but were just as impressive.










Just before night-fall, I would walk the path up to the observatory. The observatory is huge! i could actually see it, miles away whilst driving up the mountain. A shining orb of the knowledge to come, the dome is made of a reflective material in order to maintain the cool temperature within. At 7.30pm, I would head outside to watch the sunset. It was beautiful every time. The hills below were endless and engulfed within a hazy fog they call the inversion layer. If the inversion layer were not present, we would be able to see the south pacific ocean, however it would also mean bad weather to come. As the sunset, the snow-topped mountains would light up pink, twilight begins. Back in the control room we had to wait until the sun was 14 degrees below the horizon before we could begin. Once it did however, it was non-stop until 7.30am the next morning! Thankfully the observatory was fully equipped with a kitchen and toilets and the main thing was that it was warm!

Each night, I would take a break and go outside. It was always pitch black, which was quite worrying since I’m sure countless individuals have blindly stepped off the mountain to their deaths. The skies were unbelievably clear whilst I was observing, and it was easy to see the milky way. In deserted locations like these, where the light-polution from civilisation is non-existent, there are always countless more stars than the eye can see. Just before morning twilight, I observed for the first time the zodiacal light – a hazy glow in the east caused by scattered sunlight off interplanetary debris.


Dr Chris Lidman and I and the 4m Victor Blanco Telescope

For my observing run, I was accompanying Dr. Chris Lidman, a staff scientist of the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO). This gave me the opportunity to tour the telescope itself! Up 5 levels in an elevator is where the telescope lives. It was gigantic! In fact below the telescope there was a net to catch people in case they fell off! Mounted on the sides of the dome were 2 giant white screens that would be projected by LED lights for flat fielding. The floor below was the aluminizing chamber where every 2 years the mirror is dropped down and slid into. Here the old aluminium surface is removed using hydrochloric acid and a new aluminium layer is deposited. The whole process takes 6 days! The telescope is also regularly cleaned by CO2 and is carried out by walking onto the mirror itself! Another interesting thing I found was the cryogenic pump. This pump is used to maintain DECam’s temperature and is constantly roaring day and night. It kinda sounds like the Tardis. This amazing piece of equipment needs maintenance every 7 months, costs $35,000 and will put the observatory out of use for a week.

I was lucky enough to get 3 clear nights of observing in total and am very sad to leave. However I really need to catch up on some sleep now. Adios Chile.

Observing at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory and 5 reasons why it is awesome


Today is a big day for me. It will be the first time I get to observe at a working research observatory! I have been teaching Astronomy Lab to 2nd year undergrads for 3 years now, and prior to that I was the telescope officer during my undergraduate studies. All of this has been preparing me for this moment. Excited is an understatement.

The Cerro Tololo facility (CTIO) is one of the few observatories that lie south of the equator in Chile. This is great to look at things in the Southern Hemisphere, such as my galaxy clusters! The location is dry and low light pollution, perfect for observing.
At an altitude of 2,200m, the pressure here is 79kpa and only 78% of oxygen would be available to us compared to if we were at sea level. Usually astronomers will go up the mountain a day or so before observing, to acclimatise to the altitude and prevent them from being sick.

Here are 5 things that I think make CTIO one of the coolest observatories in the world:

1. The main telescope on CTIO is the 4m Victor M. Blanco. It was built in 1974 but is still actively working today!

2. When CTIO was first built the road infrastructure wasn’t the best. It would take 3 hour drive from La Serena to Vicuña, 6 hours horseback ride to Los Placeres with an overnight stay before another 4 hour horseback ride up the mountain.

3. ‘Cerro Tololo’ means ‘Mountain in front of the abyss’. It was named for the sharp drop at the northern side of the mountain.

4. CTIO was built to withstand a richter scale 9 Earthquake which is equivalent to 20 trillion kg of dynamite!

5. The 4m Blanco hosts the Dark Energy camera (DECam), an instrument built by the Dark Energy Survey astronomers to solve the mystery of cosmic acceleration.

I will be spending 2 nights observing on DECam to complete the optical coverage of the southern XXL survey regions. This is my first time in Chile and hopefully not the last, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will be built not far from here and is something I hope to work on in the future. LSST is expected to image 30Tb of data every night! That will definitely keep me busy!
Pictures to come shortly and fingers crossed for clear skies!

Finally, I would like to thank to Jean Marc at Air France who helped me tremendously to get on a flight to Chile after countless complications!

Why on Earth would you want to go on a no return journey to Mars?


Is this the money question? It certainly is the question that everyone wants to know!

Well, I could give an infinite list of the many reasons why we should go to Mars, but on a personal level, let me tell you why it is important for me.

Firstly you may think I am crazy – all scientists are in a way. But certainly I am not crazy enough to get me this far. I mean seriously, do you really think they would send a crazy person to space? Of course not.

I have always been obsessed with science and I owe it all to the great education system I was brought up on. The access to science club was really what inspired me to be a scientist. Ever since then I have wanted to be in the space industry that’s why I have a masters degree in space science and am currently doing a PhD in Astrophysics.

I currently research some of the most massive objects in the observable universe – galaxy clusters. It always blows my mind how insignificant we are. I will never be able to explore another galaxy cluster except through a telescope. We will never even leave our own galaxy in my lifetime since we have only just left the solar system with Voyager and that set off in 1977!!!

As a scientist all I want is to explore and learn. We can do this with a mission to Mars and at the same time we will inspire the next generation of scientists and generations to come. I want the public to be as much interested in the science we are capable of doing as I was as a child. What I am doing is going to change the world and make history.