Profile of an Astronomer

Michael Burton

Michael Burton

Department of Astrophysics and Optics,
School of Physics
University of NSW

In which area or areas of science do you work?

Astronomy. I do much of my science with radio telescopes, trying to map the structure of the molecular gas in our Galaxy. I also am engaged in the development of astronomy on the high Antarctic plateau, the driest and coldest place on our planet.

When did you first become interested in this career?

At about the age of 10 when read my first book on astronomy.

What education and training do you have to have for your job?

At school I loved maths and physics. My undergraduate degree was at Cambridge where I studied mathematics. For my PhD I went to the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh and researched into infrared astronomy. It took me 7 years from leaving school until I obtained my PhD.

How has your career progressed?

After completing my PhD, I moved to the States for 4 years, doing post doctoral research in Hawaii and California, at NASA Ames Research Center and the University of California at Berkeley. Then I moved back to Australia (where I had grown up), to work as a staff astronomer at the Anglo Australian Observatory for 3 years. I then received a job offer from the University of New South Wales in Sydney to work as a lecturer in physics. I have been there ever since, some 20 years now.

What are the tasks that you do in a typical day?

Innumerable! Lecturing, tutoring, advising, dealing with students and callers, filling in forms, marking assignments, answering email, writing proposals, talking about research, writing lecture notes, dealing with the media, promoting and advocating science, answering phone calls, sitting on committees, sorting out crises, drinking lots of great coffee. The list just goes on.....

What skills do you use in your job?

My knowledge as a physicist, mathematician and above all as a scientist. IT skills - programming, data analysis, web-sites. Management. Communication. Multi-tasking!

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The opportunity to develop new projects to do and see things that no-one has seen before. The opportunity to pose questions about how the Universe works and then attempt to answer them.

What do you enjoy least about your job?

The seemingly endless bureaucracy of writing reports, filling in forms and writing grant proposals.

What are some alternative jobs that you would be qualified for?

There are a vast number which would allow me to think and solve problems! My training as a physicist means I have the skills to adapt to many fields, and the ability to work out those I'd need to learn if were I move to a new area.

What are some of the advantages to working in this field?

Ability to contemplate (admittedly less often than I would like) some of the wonders of the Universe, sometimes at the most extreme locations. Working with amazing facilities and people trying to learn more about our place in the Cosmos.

What are some of the disadvantages to working in this field?

The hours can be long at time, the resources are always limited.

How has your work contributed to science?

Better understanding of the environment in which stars are born, the making of new maps of our Galaxy, the unveiling of our nearest massive star forming region in Orion, the opening of the Antarctic high plateau for astronomy.

How has your work benefited society?

Furthering of basic science, contribution to the development of new scientific facilities, teaching science to next generation, communication and advocacy of science to the public, stimulating people to wonder about the nature of the Universe.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?

Having completed a new map of our Galaxy - showing the 3D view of the gas clouds along the southern Milky Way with a clarity not seen before. Puzzling over the first terahertz frequency observations made from the summit of the Antarctic plateau, of the element carbon coming from clouds of dark gas. Helping to build a new telescope that measures the very highest energy radiation that nature produces - gamma-rays - and using it to produce a new map of the violent Milky Way!

Find out more about Astronomy

You can find out more about the astronomy that Michael work on from his research homepage at UNSW.

Learn about the new survey of the molecular gas along the southern galactic plane being conducted with the Mopra telescope at Coonabarabran.

Follow the HEAT telescope on top of the Antarctic plateau as it open new windows into space in the terahertz part of the spectrum.

See the ASA Factsheet on How to become an Astronomer for more information on life as an astronomer and more profiles of Australian Astronomers.

Back to top