Tim O'Brien

Professor of Astrophysics and Associate Director of Jodrell Bank Observatory

Tim O'Brien

With research you are always in with a chance of discovering something new. Plus, if you are lucky enough, you get to visit some amazing and stunningly beautiful observatories in far-flung places.

I did my PhD here way back in the 1980s but I returned as a Lecturer in 1999. Since I visited Jodrell Bank as a schoolchild, to now be a Professor here is pretty hard to beat!

My research

My main research involves trying to understand novae, a particular type of exploding star. Novae are interacting binary systems involving a white dwarf capturing gas from a companion star. After some time, a nuclear explosion on the white dwarf ejects matter into space, it becomes visible as a 'new' star, and we observe it with telescopes working across the spectrum from radio waves to gamma-rays. I've also just started a project to search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilisations – impossible to predict if we’ll detect anything, but I can’t think of anything more important if we do!

With research you are always in with a chance of discovering something new. Plus, if you are lucky enough, you get to visit some amazing and stunningly beautiful observatories in far-flung places.

My teaching

There are many reasons I enjoy teaching. One is that it's great to talk to students; they always bring a fresh perspective. But it's also well-known that teaching a subject is a great way of ensuring you really do understand it!

I've been teaching the first year course on astrophysics for several years, but there’s always something new to include as it’s such a rapidly changing subject. Hopefully I get this sense of excitement across in the lectures. I have also developed and taught innovative astronomy courses delivered over the internet, one legacy of which is a web-controlled radio telescope at Jodrell Bank which is now used in the undergraduate laboratories.

Of course we aim to help our students to do the best they can, but as importantly, I hope they enjoy studying at Manchester. Whatever they go on to do, if they look back on their time here as a positive experience, I think we'll have done our job.

Career highlights

It would be hard to choose a career highlight! On the research side, I was able to use an array of radio telescopes to take the first image of the expanding shock wave from a nova explosion. Our models suggested it ought to be there, but to actually see it was very exciting. And on a completely different tack, I introduced New Order, Johnny Marr and Sigur Ros at our Live from Jodrell Bank music/science festivals. That definitely wasn’t something I expected to be doing when I embarked on a career as an astrophysicist!

Thinking of choosing physics at Manchester?

There's not many Schools of Physics which can claim to own and operate one of the largest telescopes in the world! The School itself is also big, which means it can excel in many branches of physics, but it combines this with being very friendly.

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