Andrew Shanahan talked to PhD student Stuart Lowe, 24, about space, the Universe and everything...
So you're studying Radio Astronomy at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire. Is there any way of explaining this in words that I would understand?
The ultimate goal of the project I am working on is to build an array of 100 receivers (a 'centipixel radio camera') which will be used on a radio telescope at Torun in Poland. This will let us make a map of the sky, which has not been practically possible until now. One of the most exciting things about this is that we will probably discover lots of new galaxies that will not have been seen before. Not only is that quite cool, at least to me, it should also be extremely useful for projects like Planck, a future space mission to study the beginnings of the Universe.
At the moment I am working on a two receiver prototype which is currently on the telescope in Poland, so I have been there several times in the last two years. I have also been able to help with the next step of the project, which consists of sixteen receivers and will be built soon.
I have to admit that I think Jodrell Bank is a very impressive place. What's it like working there?
Jodrell Bank is definitely a cool place to work. The Lovell telescope is the third largest steerable radio telescope in the world at 76m in diameter (equivalent to three standard size swimming pools laid end-to-end) and it is great to see it move to look at any point in the sky, especially with its brand new shiny surface. In terms of radio astronomy, Jodrell has been a pioneer since it was founded in late 1945. Astronomers at Jodrell study everything from stars to galaxies to the beginnings of the Universe and around a third of all pulsars (the exotic remains of exploding stars) have been found by astronomers here. You are never short of interesting people to talk to in the tea room!
Physics has a reputation for being nerdy, which in my opinion is unfair. Physicists clearly have the coolest gadgets: the Van Der Graaf generator, the flux capacitor, anti-gravity shoes, the list goes on.
I suppose the nerdy stereotype is partly down to the fact that physicists have lots of gadgets and they get quite excited by what they do. Get an astrophysicist talking about space and there is hardly any stopping them. There is also a certain stereotype of the physicist looking like they are from a 1970's Open University programme. Inevitably, there are some who live up to the stereotype, but I would say that they are definitely in the minority. On the gadget side of things, physicists have so many because we often have to make them in order to do our experiments or they spring from fundamental research. Although many people think gadgets are nerdy, would they be able to cope without their mobile phones or CD players?
What would you say to graduates who are thinking about doing a PhD?
A PhD can be very difficult and is a lot of work, with times when nothing seems to work. Having said that, it is also a major achievement and once you have finished, many more possibilities open up. For anyone starting a PhD, the most important things are to choose a project that interests you and to find the right supervisor, as you will be working with them for three years. Once you are doing your PhD, it is important to stay in touch with other PhD students, as well as those in your research group. Many of the funding councils organise special short postgraduate courses which give you the chance to talk to other students; it is amazing how reassuring it is to know that other people are having problems with their research too.
To find out more about Jodrell Bank, see www.jb.man.ac.uk