Profile of an Astronomer

Joss Bland-Hawthorn

Joss Bland-Hawthorn

Sydney Institute for Astronomy (SIfA)
The University of Sydney

(Updated from an original article by Keith Austin, in the 'Sydney Morning Herald' 13 March 2002.)

It's not what it was - astronomy. For one thing there's little of that star-gazing through giant telescopes stuff. Astrophysicist Dr Joss Bland-Hawthorn, for instance, has done that maybe a few dozen times in his career. It's not what it was; no. It's so much more.

No longer is it enough to peek at the stuff of the universe to discover its origins, now you have to look through both ends of the telescope. At one end is the universe - how did it evolve, how did we get galaxies out of the Big Bang, how did galaxies manage to form stars, how did stars manage to form planets - and at the other end is the more earthbound, money-making side that is becoming an important part of the job.

"Traditionally", says Joss, "astronomers were grounded in physics, mathematics and astronomy."

"But we don't just build big telescopes. There's a very important domain beyond that where you ask questions such as: When you get the light what do you do with it? Do you disperse it into a rainbow and then start studying bits of the rainbow? Or do you use polarisers and polarise the light?"

It's no longer enough, he says, "to pursue research and think deep thoughts about the universe. Governments worldwide are requiring pure scientists to do more for the commercial sector."

Bland-Hawthorn, who is a Professor of Physics and an Australian Laureate Fellow at the University of Sydney, adds: "You might ask what we do that anyone would want to buy? Well, we build machines that go on the back of telescopes that do something weird and wonderful with the light that comes from space - and they are very, very expensive.

"The telescope might cost you $100 million but the instruments will cost you $10 million apiece, and you'll have five of them. Or maybe more if you're really lucky. The instrument suite that goes on the back of a telescope is as much of an investment as the telescope."

To become an astronomer you need a degree in physics or mathematics. Joss, who was born in Kent, England, did a degree in mathematics, computer science and physics followed by a PhD in the UK.

"Beyond that, it's basically built-up experience; beyond that you become motivated by your own learning", he says.

That motivation has seen him work for three years on post-doctoral research at the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii, in Australia at the Australian Astronomical Observatory (during which time he met his wife), and as a professor at Rice University in the US. There have also been short-term fellowships at Princeton, Baltimore, Washington, Livermore, Santa Barbara, Wisconsin, Junior and Senior Fellowships at Merton College, Oxford, and Marseilles.

Of course there is also the sense of wonder about the universe in which we live: "If you could put a microchip in everybody's brains, " he muses, "and just reveal to them the splendour and the majesty and the extraordinary occurrences and events and phenomena, it would blow their minds."

On a more practical level, he mentions that there is a demand at observatories for more than just stargazers: "On the engineering side we need software engineers, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, and optical engineers." Indeed, the optical area is one in which Australia is an acknowledged leader around the world: "Australia cannot compete at mass-producing parts so we must build specialist things.

"I'd say that most of our effort these days goes into developing new machines." That is when he's not trying to decipher the origins of the universe: "I'd like to know where our galaxy came from, that's my scientific interest.

"What I've been looking at more recently is 'could you ever put all the stars back together in terms of where they were born?'.

"It's a preposterous question to ask but frankly so many issues in cosmology began with preposterous questions. Questions like where did life come from? How did it all start? These are preposterously big questions."

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

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