Dr Danail Obreschkow
I am an astrophysicist, active as Associate Professor at the ICRAR node at the University of Western Australia (UWA). After completing my PhD at Oxford in 2009, I acquired two years of work experience as manager in industry and coordinator of microgravity flights with the European Space Agency, before rejoining research in astrophysics at the end of 2011.
I study the evolution of galaxies using a mix of analytical and computational methods, including N-body simulation techniques. My core interests are gas in galaxies, angular momentum, and cosmic large-scale structure. To secure the impact of this research, I maintain a strong links to observers and work in a data-driven way.
THE INTERVIEW BELOW WAS CONDUCTED IN 2012
What are you working on now?
I live by the rule of three! My research is evolving around three fields in extragalactic astronomy. Firstly, I am developing theoretical methods to study how matter is distributed in the universe. My goal is to understand the precise interplay of randomness and directedness in the way the galaxies populate the space around us. Secondly, I am interested in how stars formed over the history of time. As a member of several leading research groups, I am particularly focusing on the dynamics of cold gas in galaxies. Thirdly, I am actively contributing to the preparation of surveys with future radio telescopes, such as the Square Kilometre Array and its Australian and South African pathfinders. Most of this contribution consists of the provision of tailored computer simulations that allow us to establish the key methods to analyse future world-class data. Through this work I steadily became a bridge between observers and theoreticians – a role that I never aspired to but that I nonetheless appreciate.
Apart from astronomy, I am also heavily involved with experimental research in weightlessness (see question 8). This work constitutes a side-activity within my employment at ICRAR and it will hopefully inspire some exciting activities at UWA.
What got you into astronomy?
Or why wasn’t I driven out of astronomy? I believe that most of us are born with a genuine curiosity for everything around us. As soon as we realize that our planet is but a tiny pearl in a vast and empty universe, the naïve wish to understand this world is imminent.
My life was shaped by two lucky influences that allowed me to maintain my natural interest for our universe. The first influence came from my dad. In my early childhood he often showed me the stars and explained with passion and calmness what we knew about the heavens. By the age of six I observed the 1986 passage of comet Halley. This comet, whose predicted passage in 1758 marked the first compelling demonstration of the predictive power of celestial mechanics, really made me want to know about astronomy. The second key influence came with a scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. in Oxford, which led to the encounter of my supervisor Steve Rawlings. It is for him and many of his talented co-workers that I could maintain my natural passion for astronomy and add a scientific dimension to it.
Why is your work important for ICRAR?
As Steve Jobs said, you can only really connect the dots of your actions with hindsight. As a new ICRAR member I am still establishing my role. However, I am convinced that my current research activities on cosmic structure, galaxy evolution, and future surveys will broaden and strengthen ICRAR’s portfolio. This work is particularly important because it establishes the tools and concepts that will allow us to maximize the outcomes of future sky surveys led by ICRAR. For example, ICRAR is heavily involved in future observations using several SKA pathfinders. I am currently setting up a virtual galaxy database that will serve directly to plan these observations, as well as to understand their future findings. Finally, my presence at ICRAR will help to foster the bridge to the University of Oxford – a strong pillar in Europe, whose friendship is invaluable for the continuing growth of ICRAR.
Why did you join ICRAR?
ICRAR is a world-class research institute in astrophysics and its young age promises a dynamic environment. Those features coupled with the possibility of being directly involved with the Square Kilometre Array make a compelling case for an early career researcher like me. I see in ICRAR a place that allows me to grow as well as to apply my know-how to the benefit of current research topics. Perth’s location by the Ocean and its vicinity to the Australian outback also offer a balanced off-work lifestyle.
Where were you before you came to work for ICRAR?
My CV conveys no example of a straight career path. After my Ph.D. thesis in Oxford I followed an urge to gather experience outside the shielded academic world. For a good year I then worked in the industrial development of hydrogen powered cars and low-noise aircrafts. On average, this was a fascinating job, especially because of its pragmatic and solution-oriented components. However, as if academia was calling me back, I soon received a call from the European Space Agency ESA to pursue a self-proposed research project in microgravity. This call marked the turning point where I decided to return to academia. Within a matter of weeks I was hired at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), from where I coordinated the preparation of ESA’s microgravity flights before joining ICRAR in late 2011.
What’s your favourite part of your work?
The freedom for creativity.
What do you think is the most exciting thing about astronomy today?
Astronomy is the field of physics with the most fundamental questions yet to be solved. As opposed to many other areas, which are currently concerned with describing the second and third order corrections of otherwise well-described processes, astronomy still offers crucial zero-th order problems. For example, we do not know what drives the expansion of the universe on the largest scales and what holds it together on the scales of galaxies and galaxy clusters. Or, to give a different example, we have virtually no clue about life elsewhere in the universe. I find it mind-blowing that today’s astronomy is on the verge of discovering planets very similar to ours and perhaps equally suitable for life.
How does an astronomer like you get to fly in microgravity? What did you do up there?
Over a beer towards the end of my master thesis, my good friend Philippe Kobel and I decided to participate at a contest of the European Space Agency ESA to fly your own experiment in microgravity. We worked day and night to assemble a team of four dedicated students, write proposals, build an experiment, raise funding and write media articles. Finally it all worked out. In 2005, ESA invited us to fly with our own experiment in microgravity aboard the Airbus A300 zero-g. These flights are a truly amazing experience. You get about 10 minutes of microgravity, composed of 30 times 20 seconds. The physical sensations first remind of a rollercoaster, but soon you feel as free as never before. All it needs is a little push and you spin diagonally across the cabin as if weightlessness was the most natural thing.
Our experiment on hydrodynamic cavitation (essentially bubbles) delivered useful results, generating some publications in high-impact journals. By consequence we became somewhat frequent flyers aboard the airbus A300 zero-g with subsequent microgravity flights in 2006, 2010 and 2012. I maintain a strong involvement in these flights as experimenter, scientific advisor, and background coordinator.
So you study the Universe, fly in microgravity and we hear you’ve created an iPhone app?
Coding iPhone apps attracts me for three reasons. Firstly, smartphones have become the Holy Grail – perhaps also the Golden Calf – of our society. We scientists better learn to code them if we like to stay at the forefront of technology. Secondly, I believe that there is still a reasonable business opportunity in coding apps. Thirdly, smartphone apps are a unique way to reach out to thousands, in some cases millions of people around the globe. As a researcher with a passion for teaching and outreach I see this as an opportunity. For example, my latest app called “Cosmic Eye” is an interactive educational app displaying the scales of our universe for laymen. During the first month this app was downloaded about 10,000 times, reaching far more people than I could ever talk to in a public lecture.
[If you’re interested, Cosmic Eye is free from the Apple App Store.]