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Dr Alan Duffy: Why this Ballyclare boffin has stars in his eyes

Now one of the leading astronomers on Australian TV, Dr Alan Duffy spent his teenage years gazing up at the night sky from his Co Antrim home. Chris Jones talks to the scientist about his stellar career

In March this year, Ballyclare-raised astronomer Dr Alan Duffy found himself in Parliament House in Canberra, describing his work on dark matter and the origins of the universe to Australian prime minister Tony Abbott and lobbying for more government support and funding for science.

That meeting was just one highlight in a whirlwind few months for the 32-year-old, who combines his day job at Swinburne Institute Of Technology with fortnightly appearances on ABC’s News Breakfast (the Oz version of BBC Breakfast News) as their resident astronomer. He also qualified for Australian citizenship last October and got engaged to fiancée Sarah in February. But he’s still buzzing from his brush with the most powerful man Down Under.

“I was an immigrant to this country five years ago, and there I am sitting and chatting to the prime minister,” he says over Skype from his kitchen table in Melbourne, where he’s eating breakfast before heading to his office. “The chat was great fun and very surreal — sitting with the Australian flag beside me it was like, ‘This is weird, what am I doing here?’. That was an absolute pinnacle of bizarre for me. I obviously sent that photo back to mum!”

Meeting the PM was another step on the remarkable journey that Alan has been on since his childhood in Northern Ireland. He says his inquisitiveness was encouraged by his parents, his imagination fired by his stepfather’s enthusiasm for science fiction and that his devotion to science owes much to reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History Of Time at the age of 13. But it all goes back to his back garden in Co Antrim. “I was always fascinated by the night sky,” he says. “Even at an early age I would always be staring at the stars, and I think that would only have happened in Ballyclare. The light pollution anywhere else would have obscured the vast majority of the night sky but in Ballyclare, you could actually see some stars.”

Alan was born in Peterborough, England, where his father is from, before the family — dad Kevin, mum Renee, Alan, and younger brother Chris — moved to Northern Ireland when he was four years old, “for the education”, he says. They lived in north Belfast, near his mum’s parents, and then moved to Ballyclare where he attended Ballyclare High School’s prep department and then the senior school.

He says he has good memories of growing up. “Our little bungalow backed on to fields — I don’t think that’s quite the case anymore!” he says. “I remember how much I played with the local kids, playing footy on the streets.”

As a child he was more academic than sporty, but says his interest in science came mainly from outside school. "I was naturally curious about everything," he says. "It wasn't just astronomy - I was fascinated by electricity and how things worked.

"A big influence on that was my folks taking me to the Ulster Museum. Any time there was a free exhibition on, Ma would be dragging us to it. And letting you ask questions - even if they didn't know the answers, they would be really positive about the fact you were trying to enquire and figure out the answer. I think I was a scientist in the making."

Alan admits that science lessons at Ballyclare High were more an exercise in passing exams than anything inspirational (though he reserves special praise for his geology teacher, Dr Browne, "a phenomenal teacher"), but fortunately, he was pretty good at that. And at home, his imagination was being fired by science fiction as much as science fact.

"Sci-fi was a big inspiration. My mum had remarried and my stepdad at the time was a ferocious nerd like me," he laughs. "We watched everything - Star Trek, Star Wars, all the classic sci-fi books by Asimov and Arthur C Clarke - and it opened up this world to me of all these possibilities.

"The physics that we were learning at school, it wasn't a dry, boring subject - you could create worlds with those rules. Those books and sci-fi opened my mind to how cool it was.

"And, of course, Stephen Hawking's books - how could you not want to study physics? There are these incredible concepts - black holes, the universe expanding - that are so bizarre and yet are actually part of our world. The same physics that gives us black holes gives us GPS satellites.

"By the age of 10 onwards, it was pretty clear. It was always going to be about science."

Alan is not short of heroes in the world of popular science, but he says that Hawking is his number one. "I've since discovered greats like Carl Sagan and more recently Brian Cox and Neil deGrasse Tyson - but for me it was just Stephen Hawking," he says.

"His style, what he did and his own story, that was an incredible combination. It's an incredibly potent message that you can use your mind, be liberated and think about the world around you."

And Alan is proud to have followed in the footsteps of his hero since becoming a professional astronomer, when he spoke at a symposium at Cambridge University. "You're looking through the photos and you go back a few years and there's Hawking. For me to present at a place where my hero has presented too was quite a cool moment."

Following his A-levels, Alan went on to study physics at Manchester University, punctuated by a couple of periods of study in the Netherlands, eventually completing his PhD at Jodrell Bank in 2009. But it wasn't all plain sailing - he ended up in Manchester because he failed an interview for a place at Oxford.

"I failed on a topic that hadn't been taught in the Northern Irish curriculum," he says. "They were asking me questions on a topic that I hadn't even heard of. It turns out that that was pretty lucky, though. Instead I found myself in Manchester where having a broad range of interests, including going to the pub, was positively encouraged."

Alan has since been back to Oxford to speak - it must be nice to lecture at the university that turned you down at the age of 18. "A little bit," he laughs. "But it's a different experience. I did a lot at uni, going out and seeing bands and stuff. Whereas at Oxford you end up getting slammed in terms of the amount of work required, to the exclusion of developing that other side of being an adult."

Since moving to Australia, Alan's career has, if you'll pardon the pun, gone interstellar. His high-level research, burgeoning media career and fashion sense have even won him a place as one of Men's Style Australia magazine's 2015 Men Of Influence, alongside comedians, musicians and international cricketers. "Who knew that science and bow ties would be such an influential combination?" he quips. But how did he end up in Australia in the first place?

"It was coming to the end of the PhD," he says, "and it turned out that in Australia they were just beginning to build what would ultimately be the largest telescope that's ever been conceived of, never mind built. I happened to have done a bit of work at the start of my PhD on figuring out how to see as many galaxies as possible with a telescope and they asked me if I wanted to come down."

By this stage, Alan was well used to moving to benefit his career, and he said he had "itchy feet" eight years after moving to Manchester. Plus, the climate in Western Australia was appealing. "Peter Quinn, the director, had me at the start of the interview," he smiles.

"Because of the time difference it was 5am in Manchester, raining and cold, and I'd slipped into a puddle of ice water so I was really miserable. He was like, 'G'day Alan, I just checked your weather forecast. It's 34 and sunny right now in Perth'.

"I was like, 'you got me'," he laughs. "In my wildest dreams I'd never imagined ending up in Australia. Because of Neighbours and Home and Away, I had this picture in my mind and then it ended up being a rainy day when I arrived in Perth. But the next day was sun, palm trees. Everyone is happy. Most people are genuinely excited just to be in Australia.

"At the time the country was booming - you leave the global financial crisis in the UK where everyone is depressed and you come to Australia where everyone is completely pumped about what they're doing. Even the bus drivers are smiling and waving at you. I was like, 'Wow, this place is paradise'."

Alan spent three years in Perth and then moved more than 2,000 miles to take up a post at the University Of Melbourne. But not before he met Sarah Clarke, a "HR guru" and now his fiancee. He recalls the moment he told his mum he was moving to Australia: "She said, 'Well done, have a great time, but I guarantee you'll meet an Aussie girl, fall in love and end up staying out there permanently'.

"I was like, 'Ah, don't be silly mum, it's just for three years'. But within the year I had to call her and say, 'I'm so sorry mum, I've met someone'. She was like, 'I told you'.

"I really didn't believe I'd be staying out here, but by the end of that first year I'd met Sarah, work was great and I'd got the opportunity to move across to Melbourne to work with a scientist there, and he sponsored my permanent residency. Then I got my citizenship pretty soon after.

"There was no grand plan or vision, but every time I had to make a choice I thought, 'This is a pretty amazing place, I definitely want to stay here a bit longer'. Now I'm locked in, quite likely forever."

There's no doubt the future is bright. As far as Alan's academic work is concerned, he's right at the cutting edge of astrophysics. In one project he's working to build a dark matter detector at the bottom of a gold mine. He's also involved with the development of a $150m telescope in Western Australia, as well as the extraordinary Square Kilometer Array radio telescope project, half of which is also in Western Australia.

Plus there's theoretical work on supercomputers, public talks, outreach into schools ("you might catch one or two kids just at the right moment") and his work on TV and radio.

He says that began almost by accident, when he answered a call to his department from Al-Jazeera early one morning and ended up talking about his hero Stephen Hawking, live on air. Now he's a regular on national television, taking the presenters through the latest space science news every other Monday. Is this something he ever imagined himself doing?

"No," he laughs. "Can you imagine sitting on the couch at breakfast time, trying to explain black holes to people? It's insane. But it sort of suits that temperament of being a morning person and wanting to chat about science. I'm awful at parties, I will quite literally talk science until Sarah comes over and drags me away. People are just too polite to go, 'oh my God, he hasn't stopped talking about dark matter for 20 minutes, what's wrong with this guy?"

Geeky, but personable, scientifically brilliant and passionate about the origins of the universe - the clear comparison is with fellow Manchester University alumnus Brian Cox. Granted, these are early days in Alan's media career but what if he was offered the chance to become Australia's answer to Cox and present a TV documentary series?

"I'd be thrilled," he says. "If it was something that I believed in and if the science was done well and the public would want to hear it, then I'd love to be part of it. There's still no substitute for TV. It still reaches the most amount of people, and it gets them for 30 minutes. No one is going to watch a YouTube clip for 30 minutes.

"In terms of the Brian Cox comparison, my job literally wouldn't exist without him. He has been so successful. Before him, I don't believe anyone would have thought that you could have this half-and-half role of a scientist who also does communication, but he's made it possible for me and for a few friends who are doing similar roles. Brian Cox has blazed a trail."

From stargazing in Ballyclare to TV astronomer in Melbourne and beyond, you could say that Dr Alan Duffy is doing the same.

Famous stargazers for whom the sky’s not the limit

  • Stephen Hawking, born in January 1942, was the subject of the recent Oscar-winning movie, The Theory of Everything. A British theoretical physicist, cosmologist, author and Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology within the University of Cambridge, he used quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity, combining the two fields of study to explain cosmology. He also proposed that “black holes” produce radiation, this radiation from the black holes is known as Hawking radiation
  • Sir Patrick Moore — knighted in 2001, he was the astronomer who, more than any other scientist living or dead, could explain to the world at large the marvels and intricacies of the universe — and beyond. Famous for his monocle, he presented BBC TV’s popular The Sky At Night programme for over 40 years. The programme was a wonderland of information for the expert, the novice and his huge army of fans who had no particular scientific bent at all
  • Charles Messier was a French astronomer who was obsessed with discovering and studying comets and their orbits. However, his search for the elusive comets ended up leading him to create one of the most famous catalogues of deep sky objects. He realized these deep sky objects could distract other comet-chasers, and so he decided to distinguish them as immobile objects in the night sky. The resulting catalogue, published in 1774 when the astronomer was 44 years old, contains over 100 deep sky objects, including nebulae and galaxies
  • The most important astronomer of all time was the Italian spearhead of the Scientific Revolution, Galileo. Galileo was fortunate to be alive when the telescope was invented (around 1607 AD). What he is most well known for is his staunch defence of the idea of a heliocentric solar system, regardless of the religious persecution he was subjected to. Galileo was eventually placed under house arrest for his heretical views, and lived out the last eight years of his life in his villa near Florence

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