Friday, 6 November 2015

Interview with a scientist

For this post, I've been speaking with ESA Project Scientist Dr Paul McNamara... read on to find out more about Paul, his role on LPF and what makes Gravitational Waves so cool!
-          What’s your name?
Dr Paul McNamara
-          What’s your role on LPF?
I’m the LISA Pathfinder Project Scientist based at the European Space Agency’s (ESA) European Space Technology Centre (ESTEC) in the Netherlands. My role in the project is to lead the scientific aspects of the mission, and to liaise between ESA and the scientific community (universities). The Project Scientist’s role really comes to life after the mission is launched and when we have ensured everything is working as planned. We then start the science operations - the fun part of any project! For LISA Pathfinder this means we will run different experiments each day (for 90 days) with the goal to understand the physics of all the types of disturbances which can push a test mass away from a perfect gravitational free-fall.
-          How long have you been studying gravitational waves? What first got you interested in studying them?
I started studying gravitational waves back in October 1994, when I started my PhD in the Gravitational Waves group at the University of Glasgow. My undergraduate degree (also at Glasgow University) was a joint honours degree in Physics and Astronomy - I loved astronomy, but also wanted to work in experimental physics. The gravitational waves group offered both: theoretical astrophysics of the sources of gravitational waves (black holes & neutron stars), combined with the laboratory development of gravitational wave detectors. At this time, LISA was in the early stages of design - I was lucky to be the first PhD student whose thesis was dedicated to the LISA mission, and have seen the mission change and grow over the last ~20 years.
-          In your opinion, what would be the most exciting part about discovering gravitational waves?
Gravitational waves are a direct consequence of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, however, almost 100 years after gravitational waves were first proposed, we have not yet directly detected them! Gravitational waves remain the last major prediction  of general relativity which we have not yet confirmed. Therefore, making a direct detection of gravitational waves will provide a final confirmation that general relativity is the correct theory of gravity.

However, detection is only the start. What I, along with the rest of the gravitational wave community, really want is the astrophysics we can accomplish with this completely new way of observing the universe. We have theories on what we expect to see…however, whenever we open a new window to the Universe (i.e. x-rays), we see things which we do not have theories for. These are the exciting sources of gravitational waves which may allow us to start to better understand the dark side of the Universe.
-          Who is your scientific hero?
Good question. For obvious reasons, there is Einstein. Along with several other physicists at the end of the 19th century, he revolutionised the entire field, and even now, 100 years later, we are still trying to understand the consequences of his gravitational theory.
Also, being an undergraduate at the University of Glasgow, I was surrounded by the work of Lord Kelvin (Sir William Thomson). My first physics lecture at university was held in the same lecture theatre which Lord Kelvin taught in almost 100 years before - an old room, but bursting with history. You couldn’t help but sit there and think of what it must have been like to be in the presence of such an amazing person.
-          Where did you grow up?  When you were a kid what did you want to be?
I grew up in the North West of Glasgow….very close to the river Kelvin! My father was a TV repair man, and as such I grew up surrounded by electronics, and was forever playing with the circuit boards from old TVs! This gave me an interest in electronics from a very young age, however, at school, electronics was covered under physics. This naturally led to my love for physics. Also, like most people of my age, I loved watching TV programmes such as Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, as well as movies like Star Wars…I also wanted to flying around space visiting different planets! 
When I applied to university, I planned to study physics and chemistry, however, my academic advisor suggested I take physics and astronomy instead….a life changing decision which I have never regretted, and which has led me to where I am today!
-          How did you end up where you are today?
After my first post-doc, I decided to leave academic life, and took a job in industry, designing opto-electronic sensors. However, I was not cut out for industrial life….my interests lay in science, not in a large engineering company, where the main criteria is how much profit can we make! Luckily for me, a former collaborator in the LISA project had moved to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre as the LISA Project Scientist. He was building a team, and asked me if I was interested in applying to NASA. I jumped at the chance! I was then back where I belonged developing the laser interferometric system for LISA. After three years at NASA, the opportunity arose to return to Europe as the LISA Pathfinder Project Scientist at ESA. Ten years later, I still feel very fortunate to be working at the space agency - where else do you get to have coffee every day with the scientists from all of our missions currently observing the universe, or orbiting the planets of the solar system! 
-          Who in the world would you most like to meet?
JK Rowling! My kids love the Harry Potter books and films…which I have now seen more times than I care to remember! I would love to ask her how she came up with all the details of the alternate world of wizards and muggles. Did she have a plan from the start, or did it grow as the years went by. Are the characters (especially the weird ones, e.g. Mad Eye Moody) based on real people, or only exist in her mind?

Although very far removed from science, I can see similarities with writing a series of novels - when designing a new mission (like LISA or LISA Pathfinder), the science team have to try to think of everything up front….which we always fail at! The final mission which we launch is similar to the one the scientists first proposed, but it has grown as we learn the details that come from building the satellite.
-          What comes next for you after LPF?
As a scientist at ESA, I may be fortunate to work on another mission. This could be either the gravitational wave mission which will be selected for the 3rd large class mission of our science programme, or possibly in a completely different field of astronomy or physics. Personally, I would like to work on a new field of astronomy… is never boring when you’re learning something new.
-       When you’re not studying gravitational waves what do you like doing (hobbies/free time etc)?
When not working on the LISA Pathfinder mission, I spend my time on the golf course. Fortunately, at ESTEC we have a small golf course on site - after a long day of meetings, there is no better way to wind down than a quick nine holes!
When not on the golf course, I like to spend time going for long walks with my family…and the dog. Its a great way to see the Dutch countryside.
However, when back in Scotland, we spend our time in the highlands, baggingMunros…hill walking is one activity we cannot do in the Netherlands!

         -      In one sentence, what would you say to teenagers to encourage them to study          
science & maths? 

Science is not about the equations you learn, it is about learning how to think differently, and how to perceive the world, and universe, around you….and to have fun!

Paul with LPF @ IABG in Munich, August 2015 - Picture Courtesy of ESA & Airbus Defence & Space.

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