I was born on March 16, 1963 in the central Australian desert town of Alice Springs. It was the same day that the discovery of the first quasar 3C273 was published. 3C273 was over a billion light years distant, and its luminosity was incomprehensible unless it was caused by an accreting supermassive black hole, an object of unimaginable gravity that featured in Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. The new 64-metre Parkes telescope (Murriyang) had played an important role in its identification and was later to become my “home away from home”.
My mother tells me that I was delivered by “a wonderful Aboriginal midwife who was the matron of the maternity ward” on the same day that Queen Elizabeth II was departing Alice Springs. My father was a public servant and had been ensuring her visit went smoothly. His father and uncle were artesian well-borers in the area many decades prior.
From a very early age, I loved mathematics and science, and I marvelled at the Moon landing as a six-year-old, flying my cardboard lunar module around our living room before watching the transmission of the signal being relayed by the Parkes telescope. My classmates at primary school decided that my nickname should be “the Professor”.
At high school, my interests migrated from mathematics to physics, and I loved reading about the history of science, especially Einstein’s thought experiments. Although I yearned to be a scientist, neither of my parents had attended University, and I was quite ignorant about career paths. When my father remarried, my step-brother was studying physics at University. This opened up that scientific career option to me, and the inspiring TV series “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan sealed the deal.
I was a competitive and somewhat outspoken student, but revelled in my first research project on a unique binary pulsar, two neutron stars in a tight 7.75 hour orbit at the University of Adelaide. I enrolled at the ANU to continue this work. My advisor, the esteemed galactic dynamist Ken Freeman, recalls that although they did their best to point me in other scientific directions, nothing could prise me away from pulsars. I discovered that the famous pulsar astronomer Dick Manchester worked at the CSIRO in Sydney, and he agreed to remotely supervise my PhD on the origin of pulsar velocities.
After a brief stint at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, I commenced a Royal Society Endeavour Fellowship at the University of Manchester in 1990. There, I experienced a series of academic highs in the form of many new pulsar discoveries with the exceptional Professor Andrew Lyne and my first student (and future Shaw Prize winner), Duncan Lorimer.
At one point in the early 1990s, I erroneously thought I had helped discover the first extra-solar planet, and led a Nature paper that had to be embarrassingly retracted. This was an important, and probably much-needed lesson in humility. I briefly contemplated leaving science, but came to realise that I still loved my research career.
I returned to Australia on a five-year QEII Fellowship and decided to begin empire-building, having been recruited to create the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing at Swinburne University of Technology. Our mission statement declared that we were “dedicated to inspiring a fascination in the Universe through research and education”. We pioneered online astronomy education and the use of virtual reality for public outreach with the aid of many great academic recruits and students. In 2013 we made Australia’s first 3D IMAX movie.
Whilst observing at the Parkes telescope with Duncan Lorimer in 2007, we explored a new five-millisecond burst of radio waves that he and his student had detected in an old survey of the southern sky. To our great surprise, this burst had originated a billion light years away from Earth, and was a trillion times brighter than our galaxy’s neutron stars that emit pulses. The pulse seemed a bit too good to be true, and I found it hard to get to sleep the night after we had first computed its almost incomprehensible distance. The subsequent detective work to decipher it had many parallels to the quasars.
Other burst examples proved extremely difficult to find, but after six long years my colleagues and I undertook a new survey at Parkes that finally discovered another 4, which we dubbed “Fast Radio Bursts” (‘FRBs’). Now over 5000 FRBs have been discovered and they have helped constrain the number of atoms in the Universe. Most FRBs probably originate from magnetars, highly-magnetic neutron stars.
I currently lead the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav). I am delighted that our FRB discovery has been recognised with the Shaw Prize, and owe much to my (patient) mentors, pulsar and FRB colleagues in our discovery teams and wider community, and to my wife and family.
12 November 2023 Hong Kong