King Edward VI school, Southampton; University of Birmingham; University of Sussex
BSc in Physics and Astrophysics; DPhil in Observational Astronomy.
Technology Division at the Royal Greenwich Observatory 1990-2001, building telescope systems. Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge 2001-2018, building data-processing and archiving systems.
"Computer Associate": like a "research associate" (i.e. qualified research-scientist), but with more computer engineering.
Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge.
I'm a happily-married technology enthusiast
I’m married, to Susan, and we live near Cambridge. We also spend some time at our cottage in Devon. Our two children live in Kidderminster and Susan’s mum in Birmingham, so we do a lot of traveling! We have two beloved dogs and a pond full of fish. I’m interested in history, particularly industrial and transport history. For relaxation, I build railway models and I’m trying to bring more engineering (which I can do) into my bit of the hobby to replace some old-style craft skills (which I lack).
I build and maintain software for two space missions: we find exploding stars and new planets
Space-telescope missions need a lot of data-processing on the ground to extract the science, and that needs special software. I write some of that software. I’m originally a scientist, but big computer-systems need an engineering approach and that’s been my work for the last 30 years.
I’m currently working on two space missions: Gaia, which is mapping the stars in our Galaxy and Plato which will find planets around other stars. Gaia has been working since 2014 and Plato is not yet launched.
In the Gaia mission, I work on the team for “Science Alerts”. We quickly scan the data from Gaia for evidence of stars that brighten or dim – these are often exploding stars and are scientifically important events – and pass on details quickly to other astronomers so that they can observe these stars while they’re active.
I also help on the CHEOPS project (another planet-finding mission) and the Virtual Atomic and Molecular Data Centre (tedious but useful physics data supporting other sciences).
My Typical Day
It's about 60% collaboration, 10% new coding and 30% mending things
I start around 10:00 – universities have great flexi-time, even for engineers. I spend 15 minutes checking that the Gaia computers are still working and that the data are still flowing from upstream; usually everything is OK. If the system is working, it will have found a few hundred events overnight that might become science alerts and has passed these to the science team for checking. If all is not well, I’ll have a string of “where’s our data?” emails to answer.
Reading and responding to early email takes a few more minutes and then I try to get some coding done. I have about half an hour for this, so I can only do a little.
11:00 to 11:30 is an informal meeting over coffee and this where I find out what I need to work on urgently (this changes daily). 11:30 to lunch is taken up with fixing things.
I eat lunch during a routine teleconference about Gaia (it’s nicely after lunch for my European colleagues who are one time-zone ahead) and then email my team with any details that affect our work.
In the afternoon, I work on the planning for Plato. Much of this is just finding out what the scientists want to do with the images from the spacecraft, so it’s about talking to people and trying to get them to be clear about what the software needs to do. I also spend some time looking at new technologies that might need to be part of the system. Currently, artificial intelligence software is looking interesting: perhaps if the scientists don’t agree how to find traces of planets in the data, the software can learn how to do it by itself.
I go home around 16:00 – flexitime FTW again – and take my dogs for their walk. Then I can relax until after dinner but work is not yet done. After dinner, I can get an hour or two of uninterrupted coding-time and this is where I do my best work. If it’s going well, I finish around 21:00. If it’s going really well and I have good “flow”, then I carry on until midnight. Coding is great when everything is coming together. This is the part of the job where I can make good things and, in the end, that’s why I do it.
What I'd do with the money
Build camera-phone mounts for our public telescopes
At Cambridge, we have observing sessions for the public using the University’s telescopes. It can be exciting and inspiring for young visitors to see the sky through proper telescopes. We have some nice telescopes for eyepiece observing, but no way for the visitors to make photographs to take home. A camera ‘phone can take a good picture from a telescope, but it needs a mount to hold the ‘phone in the right place. I can make a range of mounts for different ‘phones by 3D printing, given the money to buy the prints.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Scientific technology evangelist
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
I designed the observing system for the Isaac Newton Group telescopes on La Palma
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
A fellow scientist at the Royal Greenwich Observatory
What was your favourite subject at school?
What did you want to be after you left school?
An astronomer (so that sort of worked!)
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
I like sautes and stir-fries.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Travelling with my wife
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1. More coding, fewer meetings. 2. More time for hobbies. 3. Enough money to travel in style with my wife.