Dr George Hobbs - Astrophysicist

George Hobbs: Astrophysicist
Dr George Hobbs

Tell us about yourself.

I was born in Beverley, near Hull in the north of England 30 years ago.

Where did you go to school and UNIVERSITY?

Due to my parents moving to a different city every few years, I attended various schools in Switzerland, England, the U.S.A. and Wales. In the last two years of high-school, I studied mathematics, physics, chemistry and music. Due to its excellent astronomy department, I undertook a Master of Physics and Astrophysics four- year degree at the University of Manchester in Northern England.

How did you get into astronomy?

I enjoyed my undergraduate degree so much that I continued to do a PhD in radio astronomy at the Jodrell Bank Observatory which is run by the University of Manchester. My PhD topic was "Searching for and timing radio pulsars" and was completed in the year 2003. I had two main reasons for studying this topic: 1) pulsars are incredible objects that allow high precision tests of fundamental physics and 2) the research allowed me to take multiple trips to Australia!

What has been your career path so far?

Prior to my PhD, I spent summer holidays working in the European organisation for nuclear research, CERN, and at radio telescopes in Holland. After my PhD, I was successful in obtaining a Bolton Fellowship that allowed my to have a three-year research position at the Australia Telescope National Facility (ATNF) in Sydney, Australia. Near the completion of that position, I was lucky enough to be offered a further three- year position at the ATNF working with Dr. R. Manchester who had obtained an extremely prestigious Federation Fellowship grant to develop the Parkes Pulsar Timing Array Project. The main goal of this project is to use observations of pulsars to make the first direct detection of gravitational waves. More recently, I have been offered an Australian Research Council QEII Fellowship that will allow me to continue this project for at least a further five years and now have a permanent position as a Research Scientist at ATNF.

What does a typical work day involve?

I undertake observations at the Parkes observatory approximately for two or three days each month. During an observing session, I typically wake around 3 am, head up to the control room, chat with the astronomer on the night shift, set up some observing schedules and then keep an eye on the monitors to make sure that everything is working correctly. Back in Sydney, I spend the day writing papers, developing software, attending meetings, supervising PhD students and processing our observations (and, of course, a little table-tennis at lunch). My main goal at work is to undertake research that can be written up and published in scientific journals. Currently, approximately fifty percent of my time is spent writing and developing computer software (mainly in the C and C++ programming languages).

George Hobbs observing at the Parkes radio telescope.
Credit: CSIRO
George Hobbs observing at the Parkes radio telescope.

What is the most interesting thing about being an astrophysicist?

My job is exciting. Every day seems to be different. One day, I'll need to think through some difficult mathematics, the next day I'll be reviewing my student's paper whilst trying to complete some software development. Perhaps, the day after will involve getting on a plane and flying to a conference in Thailand. I was lucky enough to be involved with the Parkes multibeam pulsar survey and so have discovered many hundreds of pulsars! I am also now working on a project to detect gravitational waves that, if successful, would be of huge international importance to the physics and astrophysics communities.

George on an outreach tour of outback Western Australia.
George showing a student at Cue Primary School in Western Australia how to safely view the Moon during the day.

What have been your highlights?

The most satisfying project that I have completed is the development of the tempo2 software package. This piece of software allows pulsars astronomers to process their observations and search for gravitational wave signals. It is now being used by astronomers World-wide. I also enjoy presenting my research to the public. One recent highlight was being part of the Wildflowers in the Sky project which allowed me to work with Aboriginal school students in Outback Western Australia. I am now the science leader for a new educational project, PULSE@Parkes that allows high school students to observe pulsars by controlling the Parkes radio telescope remotely.

Are there any downsides or frustrations in your work?

An astronomy career needs to be an obsession. Astronomers work long hours, spend many hours sitting on aircraft and travel constantly. Often you are working on a project that is extremely complicated and requires patience and dedication to finish the research. Astronomers are also a strange bunch of people. They are, in general, extremely friendly outside of work, but rather competitive during working hours. I often produce a paper which I think is well-written only to find that my collaborators find something to argue about in almost every sentence. This can be very frustrating, but does lead to the research being confirmed before final publication.

What motivated you to choose a career in science/astronomy? Were you a natural at it in school?

At school I wasn't sure whether I wanted to study science or music. I opened the university course book at the beginning "accounting ... no, acting ... no, agriculture ... no, astronomy ... yes!". I wasn't totally sure if this was the career that I wanted (I wasn't brilliant at physics at school) and had no knowledge or interest in radio astronomy. However, I loved the university course and was able to observe with the Jodrell Bank teaching telescopes as an undergraduate. At this point radio astronomy (and pulsar astronomy, in particular) really grabbed my attention and I have been excited about radio astronomy ever since.

What do you see your career ten years from now?

For the next five years I'll be continuing the Parkes Pulsar Timing Array project. In 10 and 20 years time, I hope to be developing and using the new generation of telescopes being built in Australia and elsewhere such as ASKAP and the Square Kilometre Array.

What do you do when not at work?

My main interest is music. I play the 'cello, piano, various recorders and am learning the viola. I perform in chamber groups and orchestras. I also enjoy most sports, particularly hiking and table tennis. My work allows me to travel extensively and I make sure that I try and do something slightly more interesting than just flying into the conference. For instance, recently I took the train from a conference in Urumqi to another meeting in Beijing (a three day train ride across China)!

George off on a camel ride in the Gobi Desert, China.
George off on a camel ride in the Gobi Desert, China.

What advice or suggestions would you make to young people considering a career in science?

To get into a science research career you will need to do well at school and university (particularly in science and mathematics). I also recommend a good knowledge of computing (particularly using the Linux operating system). You will also need to be willing to travel and, probably, to live abroad. A possible huge problem is trying to keep a reasonable balance between home life and work. Living abroad, travelling a lot, working late, having short-term research contracts (i.e. not knowing if you'll have a job in three years time), being highly competitive etc., can all cause issues with your family!

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