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The Exoplanet Factor: Dr Simon O’Toole joins RealScientists – Real Scientists

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!


James is a recovering scientist and escaped postdoc who works in research management at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He's now retired from active @RealScientists duty, after serving from the project's beginnings in 2013 through to mid 2015. When not managing research, surviving #PlanetParenthood or pretending not to be an expat Australian in the Deep South of NZ, he tweets @theotherdrsmith.

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