Published in Science Spin, Issue 42, September-October 2010
How do you describe someone who checks his computer first thing every morning to see what the weather is like – not in Malaga, the Canaries or Tenerife – but, the Sun. Strange? Weird? Odd? No, not really. This is just part of the daily work routine for Ireland’s leading academic ‘Sun Worshipper’, TCD astrophysicist, Peter Gallagher.
Today, Peter Gallagher is head of the Solar Physics Group at TCD, working with NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the space industry. He is Ireland’s foremost scientific authority on the Sun, and his group is one of the largest of its kind in Europe. By any measure of success, Peter has been very successful in his career.
So, how did he first get interested in science? Well, like many leading scientists, he didn’t have a single defining moment that made him realise that he wanted to be a scientist. Rather, he remembers always being interested in how things work, from very early in his childhood. Peter’s Dad, was a service engineer with Ingersoll Rand, and father and son often working together, taking apart machines in the back garden.
“I was always fascinated by the way things worked,” recalled Peter. “I used to take things apart an awful lot – TVs and radios things like that – and I would work how they worked. I did that when I was in primary school, 10 or so. I was taking things apart around the house and driving my parents mad.”
The young Peter learned quickly, and though he didn’t excel, in an academic sense, while in primary school, he showed glimpses of what he was capable of. “I remember the teacher asked the class how a four-stroke engine worked. I stood up and told the teacher about the four strokes of the engine, intake, compression, fire and exhaust. .
Peter, from Dublin, went to O’Connell’s School on the northside. While at secondary school he became interested in maths, and though he found it was the hardest subject, he liked it the most, and liked the challenge it presented. Surprisingly, the school didn’t have an option to study physics, so Peter chose to do chemistry and technical drawing with an eye on doing chemistry or chemical engineering later on in college.
Peter applied for science in UCD, and was accepted choosing Physics, Chemistry, Maths and Biology in 1st year, and thinking that chemistry would be his main subject.
“I was fascinated by atoms and molecules, but realised in college that physics told you more about atoms and that I could use my maths. In chemistry, I found it too abstract. The chemicals in the bottles didn’t help me understand how atoms worked.”
That first year in college, as for many people, was a momentous one for Peter. He met the two loves of his life – Physics, and his talented scientist wife Dr Emma Teeling. The love-life is a story for elsewhere, but in terms of physics, Peter realised as soon as he did physics in first year that he wanted to be a physicist. The exam results, and reading the ‘Brief History of Time’ by Stephen Hawkins, lit his fire even further.
He read Hawkins, but that wasn’t enough. He devoured books relating to Physics. “I launched into astronomy and astrophysics,” he said. “I took books out even during the summer, and worked through them. I loved physics, I couldn’t put them down.” That kind of passion and commitment would lead him to do great things in coming years.
Peter chose to do a post-grad in opto-electronics at Queen’s University in Belfast (QUB) after graduation. This was a hot area at the time, back in 1996, and he learned about fibre optics, lasers, CCD cameras and the like. It was also a stimulating time to be in Belfast, and he was there for the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. He came first in his class, and was offered a PhD at QUB. The clincher was that the PhD would involve travel and interaction with NASA’s Goodard Flight Centre.
The PhD was in Solar Physics, and involved using NASA’s SOHO spacecraft to make measurements of the Sun’s atmosphere. He worked closely with engineers and scientists based at the SOHO control centre. Then, following the completion of his PhD he was offered a job by NASA at Goddard. A career in NASA beckoned.
However, after three years working as a senior scientist with NASA he decided he wanted to come home. Why would he leave what many would consider a dream job and come back to Ireland? “How the hell knows,” he answered (laughing). But, the decision was taken for very clear reasons, and he believes it was best for his career. At NASA, he would have gone up the ladder in a big organisation, and could have ended up managing a spacecraft, for example. But there were few opportunities for research.
“It was a dream job at Goddard, but there was a barrier to me scientifically to be honest. I wanted to set up a research group that answer questions like, how the Sun produces explosions and solar flares? How do they affect the Earth when they go off?” He returned to Ireland in 2006, and first lectured at UCD. Then came the chance to set up a group at TCD, he took it and now he is doing exactly what he wants to do.
“I am constantly changed and have the opportunity to pursue my own interests. If you are driven by a question, then as an academic scientist you have the luxury to pursue that question. The travel is the fluff. I travel to Hawaii for meetings, but the stuff that keeps you awake at night, the science paper beside the bed because you don’t understand something – that’s the joy of the discovery of new things.”
The advice Peter would give to students considering science is that, aside from the academic life, there are many career options, and many of them are rewarding. A recent astrophysics graduate of his, he said, is now working in a financial trading firm. There is the IT sector, or teaching, or jobs in Ireland growing space industry.
He finishes on an optimistic note, from a person that describes himself as ‘an unrelenting optimist”. “I am very optimistic about the future for Ireland. I think we are going to explore new markets, new science and that ultimately that will bring growth and employment back to Ireland. I am very positive about the next five years.”