When 33-year-old Dr Alan Duffy appeared on The Project last year, teenagers took to Twitter to ask ‘who’s the hot astronomer?’ The Daily Mail even ran a story about the particle physicist causing a social media meltdown. “It’s funny, it’s a little weird, and it’s not on my business card,” says Dr Duffy, a little bashful about it. “My wife cracked up. She thought it was hilarious.”
The astrophysicist and science communicator is like an Australian Brian Cox with a Northern Irish accent. He calls himself a “tremendous geek” who “grew up on a diet of Star Trek, Star Wars and great sci-fi authors like Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke”. And he’s the ambassador for this year’s Sydney Science Festival, which features an exhibition about CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, “the most exciting, enormous and impressive feat of human engineering and science,” says Duffy.
Dr Duffy first moved to Australia in 2009 to work with the largest telescope ever built – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in Perth. Now based in Melbourne, he spends his time building baby universes on super computers.
“A super computer is a giant room literally humming from all the machines churning through numbers – thousands of computers crammed together. You can do everything from trying to understand how proteins fold to how universes form. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Similar to Brian Cox (who is also on the line-up for Sydney Science Festival), Duffy is known for finding relatable ways to talk about dark matter, galaxy formation and astronomy. He jokes he’d “rant about science even if no one were in a room,” and if you want to truly understand the impact of the Large Hadron Collider, Duffy will be giving a talk at the Powerhouse Museum on ‘The World’s Greatest Science Experiment’ on Friday August 12.
“I really want to let people see all the particles that are flying through them right now. That might worry some people because it would be horrifying to see just how many tiny particles are flying through you as we speak. But our bodies are wonderfully adept at repairing the damage.”
The world’s largest particle accelerator is essentially a discovery machine. It’s capable of sending trillions of protons around a 27-kilometre ring at 11,245 times a second. Its cathedral-sized detectors are taking investigating a specific period in time, a millionth of a second after the Big Bang.
“Astronomy has gotten us from today to all the way back to a few seconds after the Big Bang,” says Duffy. “Particle physics takes the baton and extends that back to the fractions of a second by recreating the conditions that existed – and they’re pretty extreme, like 100,000 times the temperature of the core of the sun.
“It’s a pretty exceptional machine, arguably one of the all-time greatest achievements of humanity. It’s something we should all be proud of as a species, and this exhibition is the closest you’ll get to it.”
The Large Hadron Collider is famous for proving the existence of the Higgs boson – the so-called God particle. “Someone called it the God particle because the Higgs field is responsible for giving mass – what we feel as mass,” explains Duffy. “The Higgs field, which is everywhere like a giant Wi-Fi field, has places that are really intense and we can point to that particle and say that’s a Higgs particle. The field is what’s important, but it’s really easy to tell you’ve seen the field when you see the individual particles. This is why everyone got real excited.”
At the time the Higgs was discovered, the Swinburne University astrophysicist and cosmologist was at a conference for quantum physics in Melbourne. “I was sitting with a few thousand other physicists and they showed the live stream from CERN. They showed the little bump, where the particle is, and everyone just shouted and screamed. We all saw the chart and were like, ‘that’s the signal’. It was an incredible moment. The partying that went on was massive!”
Duffy will talk through the Higgs, but he’ll also point out the huge mysteries left to uncover, for example, “Four fifths of all the mass in the universe is missing. It’s this dark matter. We don’t know what it is, but hopefully the Collider will help inform that.”
As well as trying to understand dark matter, Dr Duffy regularly talks about Australian Aboriginal astronomy, too. “It’s an example of what happens when you have intelligent people over thousands of years noticing phenomenon and trying to explain it. These things have always been known to the Aboriginal people and passed on through generations,” says Duffy.
“One of the amazing examples is up in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park where there’s a rock engraving of a stretched emu – which we now know represents what we call the Milky Way, the galaxy we live in. The emu in the sky [constellation] matches the emu in the rock – and more importantly – they line up at a key moment of the year when emus are laying their eggs. In other words, the Guringai people know that when the emu-in-the-sky aligns with the emu carved in the rock, they can hunt the emu’s eggs, which is an incredibly valuable source of protein. I hope Australians can recognise the astronomy we do today is part of a legacy of astronomy that’s been done in this country for tens of thousands of years.”