A stellar effort: thanks and farewell to Dr Simon O’Toole of the AAO

Dr Simon O’Toole of the Australian Astronomical Observatory was our curator on @RealScientists this week, talking planets, stars, weird astronomy and science communication. @drsimmo took on some Seriously Big Science Questions during his week, including ‘Is there life in the universe?’ (probably), ‘What the hell is a hot subdwarf?’ (something to do with naked helium cores), ‘Should institutional press officers be put in an institution’ (lest we see more garbage about zombie diamond-core planets with glass rain) and the real biggie, ‘What can you do with a PhD if you no longer want to do science with it?’ (you’ll have to figure that one out for yourselves though). Cataclysmic variables, stellar evolution, neutron capture, money for old roAp, why NASA’s Kepler mission has been made of awesome… yeah it’s been a bit busy here…

Via the always scienceawesome XKCD

Simon also talked about his new scientific life as web and information administrator at the AAO, how realising the permanent, penetrative anxiety that comes with ‘publish or perish’ was making his life in and outside the office unhappy. Science – particularly trying to build a career and a life on ‘soft money’, living from grant-to-grant, hand-to-mouth – asks a lot of the people in it, in many cases disproportionate to the rewards it offers. It’s safe to say the majority of PhD grads aren’t in active research within 10-15 years, either because they’ve left the research world, or it’s left them. Simon talked of the pervasiveness of Imposter Syndrome amongst science types (and others), and how believing that voice which tells you you’re more crap than everyone else – rather than making an honest assessment of your abilities and skillset and using THAT to inform your future career path – is a journey to scientific miserableness. Of course, it’s not necessarily any better to believe the opposite…impostorvsdunningkreuger

Lastly (but most importantly) Simon helped us promote the @RealScientists At The Pub event (OK, tweetup) we’re holding at the Mitre Tavern in the Melbourne CBD in a few Fridays’ time. This is a very informal sort of get-together for the whole RS community – curators, followers, admins, friends and hangers-on. We’ll be holding similar get-togethers in other locations – starting with eastern seaboard Australia since that’s where most of our admins are close to! – in the near future, so come along and say hi. Expect one in Sydney at the end of September; date and location TBA.

Thanks again to Simon for his tremendous week on the account – if you missed anything, catch up on Storify: Part 1 | Part 2. Keep following him at @drsimmo, and keep up with the goings-on at the AAO via their website.

Next week: we head across the Pacific to visit with Michele Weirathmueller, PhD student in oceanography at the University of Washington. (Actually she’s from New Brunswick in Canada, so we’ll need to cross continental north America as well…) Does science, draws comics, is generally awesome. We’ll have an intro post up for her soon, but in the meantime check her website out at http://www.michw.com/.

The Exoplanet Factor: Dr Simon O’Toole joins RealScientists

Dr Simon O’Toole of the Australian Astronomical Observatory is our next contestant on The Science Is Right @RealScientists: discoverer of worlds, enabler of research, communicator of science, manager of information and writer of words. Here are some of them, because they’re better than we would have come up with.

SJOT image

I grew up in Penrith in the western suburbs of Sydney. Science is pretty strong in my family: both my parents have a science degree, and my dad went on to get a PhD in cell biology; my uncle has a degree in nuclear physics; and a cousin works for CSIRO.

Despite this, I decided to do aeronautical engineering at university, and was accepted to do my degree at the University of Sydney. Along the way, I decided to spend the extra year and get a science degree. Then in 3rd year I wrote a review paper on the recently discovered extrasolar planets (or exoplanets).
I ditched the engineering part of my degree, did honours and was then accepted to do a PhD in the then little understood hot subdwarf stars, which are hot old stars nearing the end of their lives. Not quite exoplanets, but I picked up all the skills and techniques I’d need for that field along the way. I submitted in August 2002 (graduated the following year), and then moved to the town of Bamberg in Germany for a three year postdoc.

My time there was perhaps my most scientifically productive: lots of papers, new collaborations and new ideas; some of them were even good! I got my hands on data taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, and did element abundance analyses of hot subdwarf stars, finding that they are extremely peculiar objects. Contrary to expectations, their upper atmospheres are loaded with heavy metals such as nickel, titanium, tin, germanium and lead. This material cannot be produced in the stars, so they are the fingerprints of the formation gas cloud. We even measured the lead isotope ratio in a couple of objects, still the only time this has been done outside our solar system.

Three years in small-town Germany is tough when your partner is not there, though. I loved my time in Bamberg, made some good friends, developed a love of good German beer, but at the end, it was time to come home. I was lucky enough to get a job at the then Anglo-Australian Observatory (AAO) working in the field that got me into astronomy in the first place: exoplanets.

Man can not live by beer alone (allegedly)

I still love the field of exoplanets even now; I mean after all, how many people can say that they’ve discovered new planets? It’s hard to top the thrill of discovery, but as a scientist, this is not just about stamp collecting (to paraphrase Ernest Rutherford): we are trying to understand how planets are out there, and more importantly how many planets out there are like our own Earth.

Along the way, I’ve done an ever increasing amount of public outreach and education. I’d done a little bit before joining the AAO, but the opportunities have come thick and fast. There’s always something astronomical going on somewhere. Some highlights:
* Being interviewed by ABC TV about the definition of a planet (I’m still not completely happy with it);
* Filling in for Professor Fred Watson on ABC Local Radio Evenings for a few weeks – there’s nothing like talkback radio to keep you on your toes!
* Performing at the Nerd Gala as part of the Sydney Comedy Festival – it still blows my mind that I made people laugh for 15 minutes;
* Doing a piece with Derek Muller at Veritasium on life in the Universe which stemmed directly from the Nerd Gala gig;
* Speaking with countless school kids about science, inspiring them about our solar system and the universe; and
* The Chelyabinsk meteor inn February this year: I had just written a column for The Conversation about another asteroid (2012 DA14) when this meteor came hurtling through the sky, so I got to comment on the Chelyabinsk event as it happened and then write another piece on Forensic Astronomy.


While no longer active in research anymore, I think of myself as more of an enabler of research these days, whether it be by providing the tools to other astronomers, or by inspiring school students to get interested in science.

After seven years as a Research Fellow and then Deputy Gemini Scientist at the AAO, Simon moved into a research administration role earlier this year, and is now the web and information administrator at the AAO. He no longer gets asked to help fix broken-down Geminis by smart-arses like the author.
Simon blogs here and tweets there, but for this week he’s with us on RealScientists. Welcome him!