20 Cheeky Questions: Dr Alan Duffy

There are a handful of people who, when talking about science, have the ability to capture our imaginations and propel our hearts and minds into the unknown. The likes of David Attenborough, Carl Sagan, Oliver Sacks, Brian Cox and Neil deGrasse Tyson have all done it. Add Melbourne-based astronomer Dr Alan Duffy to that list. Dr Duffy’s specialty is the nature of dark matter and the formation of galaxies like our Milky Way. But it’s his way of sharing astronomy with the public that makes the universe and our place in it that bit more astonishing and yet within reach. This month Dr Duffy answers our 20 Cheeky Questions about life, plants and, you know, the cosmos.

Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself, and your life with plants?
As an astronomer I tend to keep my eyes up more often than down but one thing that you do begin to appreciate after seeing so many beautiful yet barren worlds is the unique and precious abundance of life on Earth. I love exploring the outback of Australia and the sheer variety of the plant life on this land is astounding. For someone from Ireland the idea that trees shed their bark not their leaves has never ceased to amaze me.

What does the word ‘COSMIC’ mean to you?
It conveys a sense of scale that is hard to comprehend. Of distances and sizes so large that entire galaxies appear as little more than points of light, much as individual stars do to us that make up our Milky Way galaxy.

Do you think that there’s likely to be plant life elsewhere in the universe?
In the last few decades we have found thousands of alien worlds, so many that we now know that on average every star in the night sky has a planet. A fifth of every Sun-like star has an Earth-sized world. That means that there are billions of Earths out there. It seems inconceivable that ours is the only one in which life has arisen.

What form it will take is more difficult to say. Basic single cells like bacteria seem almost certain, more complex plant based life is tougher to say.

I can imagine if there is a similar plant based life (or at least something that converts starlight to food) it’s going to be incredibly varied in terms of colour – the leaves will be whatever colour is most efficient for absorbing the star’s light (and not all stars are the same colour as our Sun!).”

What cheers you up?
My sure-fire way to get over any blues is a walk in my local beautiful park (affectionately known as Rocket Park) that ends by sharing a nice Australian pinot noir with my wife.

What is the habit you are proudest of breaking, or want to break?
I desperately want to break my chocolate habit. I can honestly say if there’s a bar of chocolate in the house or office it’s gone within minutes regardless of size.

Here is a simulated universe Dr Duffy created on a supercomputer, showing the strands of dark matter stretching millions of light years across. "The entire Milky Way would be in one of those little blobs of light, strung out like morning dew on a spider’s web in the backyard," says Dr Duffy. "We are a tiny point of light in a vast universe but all connected through this ‘Cosmic Web'". Image by Bourke, Crain and Duffy.

Name a skill you wish you had?
I want to say ‘guitar playing’ or ‘surfing’ better, but then if you practice enough you can learn almost any skill so I figure I’ll just sound lazy wishing for that. Although no matter how much I practice I cannot whistle using my fingers. So maybe, without sounding too trivial, that would be a great skill to have.

What is your favourite word and why?
A Dutch word – Gezellig – it means cosy, happiness, that comfortable warmth when it’s raining outside while your snug by a fire and more. The Dutch are rightly proud of that versatile little word.

What are your top 3 most played songs on your playlist?
This always changes but right now it’s “How Much A Dollar Cost?” by Kendrick Lamar, “False Media” by The Roots and (as it was in my wedding dance which I had to practice a few million times) Disclosure’s “Latch”.

If you had to make a garden in outer space with 3 plants, what would they be and why?
Potatoes. It’s no stereotype that the Irish consume huge amounts of them but that’s because they’re so versatile! That they’d lessen the homesickness is a bonus. I would try and grow something fragrant but still useful, so a citrus of some kind… and then for the third I’d opt for something completely impractical like a beautiful eucalyptus tree. I love their smell and now associate it completely with my new home.

How any of these plants would grow in low-gravity isn’t clear but NASA recently succeeded with lettuce so it’s clearly possible!”

What makes somebody sexy?
A combination of smarts, confidence and a beautiful smile. All three together are stellar.

What do you miss most about being a kid?
Getting to read all night without feeling guilty. These days I know I’ll be ruined the next day and stop.

Are you a gardener, or is anyone in your family a gardener?
My Mum has some green fingers, my Dad runs a decent lawnmower.

My greatest success was getting some automatic reticulation running in pots around my backyard. My first crop of basil made me feel like Monty Don.”

What’s the first thing you notice about a person?
Their accent, I love trying to place people’s life journeys through a mangled accent (like I now have after so many years in Oz!).

What qualities in people do you admire the most?
Determination, patience (especially with others!) and positivity. Those three are key to getting on in research as it can be a long road to a discovery.

Who/what inspires you?
Anyone acting with true passion, be it at work, in a concert or the sporting arena – you can’t mistake someone in ‘flow’ and it’s inspiring to see.

What would you be doing in an alternate life or career?
Genetics research. We have barely begun to explore the possibilities of biology, and the application of advanced computer studies with new genetic sequencing are ushering in a revolution in the way we approach the world.

What planet would you most like to visit (putting all practicalities aside) and why?
Skimming over the rings of Saturn or plunging into Jupiter’s cloud depths to see if theories of its core being a planet-sized diamond are tempting, but I’d most like to visit Earth.

There are so many places I haven’t seen yet: Amazonian rainforests, the depths of the Marianas Trench or frozen Antarctic ice sheets. 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.”

What’s your star sign, and do you give any weight to the horoscope?
I’m an Aries, and no. The combined impact via gravity of all the planets and distant stars is far weaker than a truck passing you in the street, so much more relevant to ‘predicting’ your day would be to read the traffic report. But then I would say that as Aries are cynics, right?

What’s your favourite type of celestial event?
A total solar eclipse, there is nothing more eerie than seeing the shadow of the Moon race towards you across the land and then a cold wind begins as the animals begin to screech thinking it’s night. After a matter of minutes it’s over as if nothing had happened. There’s no better reminder that space isn’t remote and fixed but rather a dynamic and potentially dangerous place that we need to explore to protect our world.

How many people are you completely yourself with?
Less than my number of Facebook friends, which is a worry, but thankfully more than none.

For more about the universe, you can visit Dr Duffy’s website.

Dr Alan Duffy: "My greatest gardening success was getting some automatic reticulation running in pots around my backyard. My first crop of basil made me feel like a Monty Don."