Associate Professor Alan Duffy on making space cool again

Super Informed
01 Aug 2018
5 min read

If you’ve ever sat back in a planetarium and enjoyed the escapism that comes with it, then you’ll recall feeling fascinated by our universe’s endless possibilities.

Someone lucky enough to explore this for his day job is Associate Professor, Alan Duffy. He’s a passionate believer in making science accessible to any audience.


I’ve always been fascinated by the world around me—my earliest memories are of trying to understand how the night sky worked. In my mind, that passion makes for a good scientist.

Also key is retaining that child-like curiosity to ask good questions and enjoying working out an answer.

"It’s worth saying, if you’re passionate about knowing answers, rather than working towards them, then you’re going to have a hard time in scientific research where most of the time you won’t know the answer. But that’s the fun for me."

Supercomputers are one of the most incredible changes to have occurred in my field, allowing us to connect disparate observations in time from, say, the Hubble Space Telescope, and place it within that greater story of galaxy formation.

You can literally watch a galaxy like our own Milky Way form on the OzSTAR supercomputer—but only if you have added to that simulated universe five times more of invisible, ghost-like dark matter than all of the atoms combined. For me, the most fascinating discovery is that supercomputers allow us to predict the shape, amount and indeed motion of something we still haven’t actually directly detected. It’s hard to think of a time in science when we so precisely understood something we had yet to definitively discover.

The first scientist to inspire me was Stephen Hawking when I read his book A Brief History of Time as a teenager. It was then that I realised there was a job where you could follow your curiosity and explore expanding universes, black holes and dark matter.

Critically, he also showed you should communicate your science, not just study it. That blend of efforts is something I have attempted to pursue in my career, culminating in my dual role at Swinburne and as Lead Scientist of the Royal Institution of Australia.

Beyond Hawking’s singular example, others I strive to learn from in key areas; there’s no better communicator than Prof Brian Cox, in research I try to emulate my PhD supervisor Prof Joop Schaye and for leadership, look no further than our Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel.

Thinking about other planets I’d visit if I could, skimming over the rings of Saturn or plunging into Jupiter’s cloud depths to see if a planet-sized diamond really exists is tempting, but I’d most like to visit Earth.

There are so many places I haven’t yet seen; Amazonian rainforests, the depths of the Marianas Trench or frozen Antarctic icesheets. Thanks to the movement of the continents, weathering effects of an atmosphere and life itself, there truly is no planet more varied and beautiful than ours.

The prizes/awards and recognition are nice, don’t get me wrong, but the standout moments for me are when I see one of my student’s graduate. I am filled with an enormous sense of pride in them and their efforts, but also a huge sense of gratitude that I have been able to work with someone of such great talent and hopefully aid them in however small a way in their exciting career.

If I retired now...

I’d do what every newly retired scientist does—come to work and get on with research. But not attend any meetings. What an incredibly fun retirement that would be!

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