Six Skeptical Questions with Brad Tucker

Is this what you wanted to do when you were a kid? What first got you interested in your field?

When I was really young, I wanted to be a garbage truck (the actual truck, not the driver).  Then it was not until Uni that I started to do Physics, and then randomly chose to do research in astrophysics and liked it.

What was your first ‘A-ha!’ or ‘Woah’ moment?

As a PhD student, when I finally got a complex code I wrote to work, and in the end, it showed that the measurements of the Universe we make using supernova, are dependent on the supernova’s location within the galaxy it occurs, a potential big, challenging and important issue.


What is the one thing from your field do you wish people just ‘got’?

That aliens are unlikely to visit.  I think people understand lots of life might exist out there but don’t appreciate how far things are, and unlikely it is for them to travel to Earth.


Who’s the most interesting person you’ve learnt about in the course of your work?

Two.  Henrietta Leavitt who discovered the relation between the period and luminosity of a Cepheid, which allowed Edwin Hubble to discover distant nebulae where actually other galaxies and discovered the Universe was expanding.  She never got credit for her work until recently (past few years).   The other is Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered the first radio pulsars as a graduate student.  This work led to the Nobel Prize in Physics, but she was excluded from it while her supervisor was the one who got it.  Instead of being bitter, she has been very humble (too much so to a lot of people).  Here statement was this:


“First, demarcation disputes between supervisor and student are always difficult, probably impossible to resolve. Secondly, it is the supervisor who has the final responsibility for the success or failure of the project. We hear of cases where a supervisor blames his student for a failure, but we know that it is largely the fault of the supervisor. It seems only fair to me that he should benefit from the successes, too. Thirdly, I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them. Finally, I am not myself upset about it — after all, I am in good company, am I not!”


What do you think is the biggest challenge facing people in your field?

Funding.  Astronomy projects require lots of funding over large periods which usually does not match the attention span of governments/politicians/funding agencies.  There are lots of practical by-products of astronomy research (Wi-Fi, digital cameras, mammograms, GPS, etc.) but hard to predict what your research might lead to!


What books/journals etc. do you suggest people read to learn more?

In terms of authors – Brian Greene and Lawrence Krauss have been good.  There are also lots of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) which are a great way to learn more in-depth about subject and stay up-to-date.


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