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Astrophysicist

Prof Ray Norris is an Astrophysicist at the CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility. He also has teaching roles at Swinburne University and the University of Tasmania.

In which area or areas of science do you work? When did you first become interested in this career? How did you first become interested in this career? What education and training do you have to have for your job?
How long did it take you to get the necessary qualifications? What are the tasks that you do in a typical day? What skills do you use in your job? What do you like most about your job?
What is the most exciting aspect of your job? What do you enjoy least about your job? What are some alternative jobs that you would be qualified for? What are some of the disadvantages of working in this field?
How has your work contributed to science? How has your work benefited society? Where do you see yourself in five years time? Find out more about Astrophysics from Ray

In which area or areas of science do you work?

I usually describe myself as an astrophysicist, or sometimes as an astronomer. The words "astronomer" and "astrophysicist" are used almost interchangeably nowadays (they used to be quite different) but I think "astrophysicist" more accurately reflects the fact that we are really pushing the boundaries of physics by studying the Universe. In my case, this means trying to answer questions like "how do stars form?", or "what's the difference between a galaxy with a black hole in the middle and one which doesn't?" or "Is anybody out there?". Since I tend to use radio-telescopes rather than optical telecopes, I am also sometimes called a "radio-astronomer", although nowadays, like most astronomers, I use telescopes at all wavelengths, and so the term "radio-astronomer" is becoming rather old-fashioned. To avoid confusion, I'll use the word astronomer in the rest of this interview!


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When did you first become interested in this career?

Funnily enough, I was never a keen amateur astronomer. Instead, my passion at high school was physics. I really wanted to grapple with the fundamental questions of why we are here and how the Universe started. But sometimes, like most kids, I guess, when I was out bushwalking with friends, I'd lie on my back at night and stare up at the black sky and wonder what it all meant, and whether there was anyone out there staring back at our tiny little Sun and wondering if there was intelligent life "down here"! While at High School I went to a wonderful series of lectures on astronomy by Jim Hough at the University of Hertfordshire, and I think it was this lecture course that first made me consider astronomy as a potential career.


How did you first become interested in this career?

After high school I went to University to study theoretical physics. I think I could have gone into any one of several directions, including quantum mechanics which also interested me passionately. What finally made me turn to astrophysics was an excellent lecture series in my final year by Malcolm Longair, who was then a young lecturer but subsequently gained all sorts of honours and titles. He also became my supervisor for that course, and the supervisions with him became amongst the high points of my week. A couple of us students would sit there in his apartment, spending an entire evening drinking excellent coffee and arguing about things like the Big Bang, Black Holes, and what causes the radiation from quasars. He was a really inspirational person, who attacked these problems with a passion! He was a radio-astronomer, and I think it was the realisation that you could play with big toys (radio-telescopes) as well as uncover the secrets of the Universe which finally made me leave theoretical physics and enter astronomy.

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

The typical career path of an astronomer may be as follows:

How long did it take you to get the necessary qualifications?

I was educated in Britain, where it was common practice to take a fast track through your education, so you ended up with deep knowledge in a specialised area, but not a very broad education. So from high-school to completing my PhD took me just 6 years. Nowadays, in Australia, you'd more commonly take 7 or 8 years.

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

Very few astronomers spend 100% of their time doing research. Most spend at least 50% of their time either teaching (usually in a University), providing some support service for an observatory, or in the management and running of a major facility. In my case, I have a management role in the National Facility, and this work is itself varied and stimulating, with all sorts of challenges being thrown up when you least expect them! Because you also end up with expertise in areas not directly related to astronomy (such as computing, education, etc.), you also end up involved in other groups, which are also fun and varied, and which I enjoy immensely.

So a typical day for me might include

Those bits of my time which I classify as 'astronomy" includes activities like:

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What skills do you use in your job?

One important skill we use is problem-solving. Given quite incomplete information about the Universe, you're trying to figure out what's going on - it's often a bit like a detective story. Of course you also have to have all the training in physics etc to understand what the Universe is telling you.

Another important skill, which is coupled, is trying to design the experiment or test which will give you the bit of information you need. Astronomy is not about just peering into the sky and seeing what there is. Instead, it's about asking a question and trying to find ways of answering it. Perhaps the most skilful part of this, and the one that distinguishes the Nobel prize winners from the rest of us, is asking the right question!

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Two things:

At the telescope, Ray and Charlene Heisler, who although suffering from an incurable disease (Cystic Fibrosis) built a distinguished career as an internationally-renowned astronomer working at some of the world's top observatories. Sadly, she died in 1999.


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What is the most exciting aspect of your job?

I clearly remember one particular afternoon, when I was doing research for my PhD. I had just arrived at the conclusion of some piece of research that had taken me perhaps two years to complete. It was not world-shattering, but it was significant. In front of me, on my desk, was the answer to a minor puzzle regarding the way gas is distributed around newly-born stars. At that moment, I remember the feeling as I realised that here was a new piece of knowledge to add to the sum total of human knowledge. At that moment, no-one else in the world, not even my supervisor, knew that bit of knowledge. And I was about to give it to the world, where it would become a small but significant stone in that edifice we call our knowledge of the Universe. The feeling was intoxicating. And addictive. And I've spent the rest of my life trying to get regular fixes.

What do you enjoy least about your job?

I'm happy to say that there are no parts of my job which I dislike. The biggest problem in my job is that there are only 24 hours in each day, and so there's not enough time to do all the things I'd like to do!

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

The techniques which we use are similar to those used by many high-tech industries, particularly the IT industry. So I guess I wouldn't find it too hard to get a job in an IT development group. Some younger people actually do an astronomy PhD with the intention of subsequently going into industry. They do the astronomy PhD because (a) it's fun, and (b) it teaches all sorts of problem-solving skills. As a result, you'll find astronomy PhD's amongst the high-fliers in all sorts of industry, from IT companies to management consultants.

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

One problem is that, although astrophysics is intellectually stimulating, with long-term benefits for humanity, it's a little far removed from everyday life and our usual short-term goals. This used to worry me when I first started, as a result of which I broadened my activities to include teaching, outreach, and management. I'd find it hard to do pure astronomy and nothing else, but since there are now almost no astronomy jobs advertised without some teaching or management function, this isn't really an issue for most people!

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How has your work contributed to science?

When I was a kid, I always wanted to discover something new in science. It wasn't the fame, or prestige, or money, that I was after, but rather the feeling that my life had been worthwhile - that I had contributed something lasting to humanity. Like most scientists, I've always picked the problems where I felt I could really make some contribution. I think I've been reasonably successful in that, and have made some contributions which I feel quite proud of, so that we now know a little more in some areas than we did before.

But as well as the research itself, there are all sorts of other ways in which we contribute. Some of my best ideas have never appeared in a paper with my name on. Instead, they've taken the form of a suggestion to a colleague or student who has then gone away and done the work and turned it into a paper. I'm quite happy to see this process happening - my reward is knowing that I've made a contribution, rather than any formal recognition attached to the work.

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How has your work benefited society?

Astronomy and astrophysics don't, on the whole, provide solutions to society's immediate problems. Instead, the primary goal of basic science is to expand our sphere of knowledge. Major technological discoveries (e.g. radio waves, nuclear power, the transistor), if they exist in areas of untapped knowledge, will be uncovered in the process. This is in complete contrast to incremental technological discoveries (e.g. a better non-stick frying pan) which are better achieved through strongly-focussed, directed research. Experience has shown that the (infrequent) large increments come from pure science, such as astronomy, whilst the (frequent) small increments come from short-term research. So my work has not yet benefitted society directly, but if you ask me that question in 100 years time I hope I'll be able to point at some major technology which has benefitted humanity and show that it had its origins in some piece of astronomy that is being done now.

There is also another benefit from astronomy. Astronomy is technology limited, and so its practitioners tend to push the technology to its limits. Astronomers tend to work with industry to extract more from the available technology. In this sense, they act like "leading-edge customers", because they work with industry to make better technology, and they compete on the international stage. For example, the ATNF had one of the first www sites in Australia - long before the person in the street had even heard of the Internet. In that case, our international connections made us realise that here was a technology that we could make use of, long before the rest of Australian industry. Other examples are the image processing techniques used in CAT scanners in hospitals, which started off in radio-astronomy, and the Australian satellite ground stations being exported to Asia, which started off as a company spun off from the construction of the Australia Telescope.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?

I've no idea! In my work, I am presented with such a variety of opportunities and challenges that its diffciult to know which ones to take on. I'm sure of only one thing - that in five years time, I'll be doing something quite different from what I'm doing now!

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Find out more about Astrophysics

If you wish to ask Ray for additional information, you can email UniServe Science and we will contact Ray for you. Make sure you include Ray's name and occupation in the Subject line.

You can find out more about Astronomy from Ray's Homepage.

Find out more about Astronomy and Astrophysics.

WiseNet. A profile of Bärbel Koribalski - an Astrophysicist in Science Futures.

CSIRO's Australia Telescope National Facility

Radio Astronomy from CSIROnline, including ATNF work experience for secondary students Fact Sheet

Steve Lee's Pages of Astronomy - Steve is a night assistant at the Anglo-Australian Observatory and an amateur astronomer.

You Be the Astrophysicist! - from NASA


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