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Professor Phil Diamond

Dr Phil Diamond holds a Bachelor of Science degree (majors in Physics and Astrophysics) from Leeds University, and a PhD in Radio Astronomy from Manchester University, both in the UK.

Since gaining his PhD he has worked at the Onsala Space Observatory in Sweden, the Max-Planck Institute for Radioastronomy in Bonn, Germany and spent 12 years in various positions within the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in the USA. Prior to becoming Director of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics at the University of Manchester, Dr Diamond was the Director of the MERLIN and VLBI National Facility at the Jodrell Bank Observatory.

Dr Diamond spent six months on sabbatical at ICRAR from October 2009, and this interview was conducted during that time. Dr Diamond was then appointed Chief of CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Sciences Division, commencing June 1st 2010, and in 2012 was appointed the Director General of the SKA Organisation.

Phil Diamond
the interview below was conducted in 2010, PROFESSOR PHIL DIAMOND is now the director general of the SKA Organisation

What got you interested in Astronomy?

It was a combination of things really, as a kid I was always fascinated by science and science fiction. There were two seminal moments. One when I was eleven years old, a moment which I think affected many future astronomers, and astronomers at that time. It was the Apollo 11 landing and I remember it distinctly. I was at boarding school and it was the end of the summer term (summer in the northern hemisphere) and we were allowed to stay up late in the school and watch Neil Armstrong step onto the moon. It was just absolutely fantastic, I really enjoyed that. It reinforced my interest in science and in space.

Then that summer my cousin gave me an old telescope that he had that he wasn’t using. A little refracting telescope. I went out and started using that and learning a bit more about astronomy. That’s where the interest came, but in fact at that time it was only an interest.

I was actually going to be a mechanical engineer, but the summer after my exams and before I went to university I was flicking through the prospectus for the University of Leeds in the UK and they had just started a new course – physics with astrophysics. More or less on a whim I called up and asked to switch and they allowed me to do so. So, that’s really how I got into it.

So you had an interest from a young age with the Apollo missions, and then you decided to study astronomy

I’d been doing physics all through school, that was the subject that I really enjoyed the most, so I wasn’t doing something totally different, but I’m really glad I took that decision to change fields, it was the summer of ’76. It has worked out.

What do you find most exciting about radio astronomy?

Once of the reasons I decided to go into radio astronomy is that I’m colour blind, it was a silly factor really, but at the time I thought that optical astronomers need to see colours. Of course they don’t, but I thought, radio astronomy, that’s something that interests me. I was always very interested in going to Jodrell Bank, which was of course where I went and did my PhD.

What’s really exciting is you get to work with some fantastic people, and it’s true the world over. When I went to Jodrell Bank it was still in the early days of the development of interferometry, and some very clever people there, in the US, and Australia were understanding how to make things work. So, above all I think it’s the people that make the subject so interesting.

But, a chance to work on big pieces of kit, big telescopes, is exciting. I think telescopes are beautiful, whether they’re optical or radio. These big infrastructures, these big machines we can build and then use to explore the Universe. That always fascinates me, and excites me.

Of course, radio telescopes are some of the biggest machines we create.

Absolutely, and the SKA, when we build it, will be one of the largest scientific instruments on Earth.

Where’s the best place in the world you’ve worked?

I have great affection for Jodrell Bank, that’s where I started and that’s where I’ve been for the last ten years, but in fact the best place that I’ve worked is the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO.) They’re a fantastic organisation, I think now they’re five or six hundred people, but when I was there it was a little smaller, maybe four hundred. Totally professional, they really look after their people, they run the best instruments in the world and it was an exciting time to be there. When I got my job there it was the very start of the commissioning for the Very Long Baseline Array, the VLBA, and I was heavily involved in that, which was an exciting time. So I would say NRAO, definitely.

What’s the best experience you’ve had in your career?

That was also there at the NRAO. There have been several high points I feel, personal high points, others may not think so but they were good for me. I think the one that tops them all was soon after the commissioning of the VLBA. It was using the instrument to measure the motions of water masers around a supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy called NGC4258.

This was the first time such observations had been possible and I was very lucky to be part of the team that for the very first time was able to weigh a black hole. In fact that measurement is still the best one and that was in 1995. So fifteen years on from that nobody has yet been able to better that observation. That’s just because the data was so superb. That was really exciting. We showed the results to the scientific community and the press at an American Astronomical Society Meeting down in Texas and the reaction I think was great. It’s still my highest cited paper.

It is an amazing achievement to weigh something that is beyond our reach. It’s so far away that we couldn’t ever travel there, and you’ve basically put it on a scale and weighed it! That’s an amazing achievement.

And in fact it was a perfect application of basic high school physics, Kepler’s laws. We were able to measure the velocity of these clouds of gas orbiting the black hole and just fitted Kepler’s laws, well a bit more than that, there were relativistic corrections to be made, but they were second order, and out pops the mass of the black hole. It was a very simple experiment in its concept, but only possible with the VLBA. It was great.

You are the coordinator for PrepSKA – the program to prepare for and design the SKA – why do you think the SKA is important?

Astronomers are always trying to look further into the Universe. Over the last 15 years we’ve realized that our knowledge of what the Universe is formed of is pretty poor actually. Dark Energy is a recent discovery and we have no idea what that is, dark matter, we don’t really understand what that is either. We can see its effects, but what actually it is we don’t know. That’s 96% of the Universe those two, the remaining 4%, so-called baryons, are things we can see, and we think we understand only a small fraction of that!

So, astronomy enables us to probe the Universe, the basic physics, which is exciting just in itself. But to really be able to understand these things, you need to be able to look back in cosmic time, back to the beginning, the early parts of the Universe. You need incredible sensitivity to pick up the weak signals from even nearby objects and to do that you just need to build the best instrument that you can.

In radio astronomy our receivers are now about as good as we will ever build, there are quantum limits that stop us going further, bandwidths are fixed by the frequency at which we observe. Integration time, well that’s just money. Then the other thing that gives you sensitivity is size, sheer size. And that’s where the SKA comes in. So, it’s important really to address many of the fundamental questions in physics and astronomy that are being asked. What is the Universe made of, what’s the origin of life in the Universe, big questions like this. The public are very interested in these questions and would like to know the answers.

So, a big telescope for big questions.

Absolutely, yes. It will be fantastic. We use the word transformational, in fact we probably over use it, but it is, really. The SKA will transform our capabilities, and then our understanding.

You’re about to start work with CSIRO as the Chief of the Astronomy and Space Sciences Division, what do you hope to achieve with the division in the near future?

My first job is to familiarise myself with a new organisation, as you know it’s built out of the ATNF, Australia Telescope National Facility, plus the CDSCC, the space tracking group at Tidbinbilla. So, it’s a new organisation. One of the first challenges is going to be trying to make that coherent. I’ve really got to learn more about the Australian community, that’s why six months here in Perth has been invaluable, for starting that process.

The principle jobs are, I have to help in the delivery of ASKAP out here in Western Australia, but looking forward it’s to help ensure the SKA comes to Australia. I’ve very publicly laid my bet on which site should win the bidding process, and OK fair enough, and I now have to work to make that happen. Those are the big vision goals, to make that happen.

What part are you most looking forward to?

I think coming to Australia, just what I’ve seen over the last couple of years, the Government, the people of Australia, are highly supportive of astronomy. Somebody said to me a couple of days ago that astronomy is the single most successful science area in Australia for gaining funding from the government.

That’s exciting, being able to come to a place where there’s backing at the highest level, where taxi drivers in Perth know what the SKA is. I’ve had two and they know Australia’s in competition with Southern Africa for this. So the message has got out there, people are supportive, the government’s supportive, the resources are there, CSIRO itself is very supportive. So, that’s exciting, just being able to come to a place where you can see this vibrancy, this looking at the future. That’s exciting.

You’re currently the director of the Jodrell Bank Observatory in the UK. What is the most exciting thing that has happened at the observatory whilst you’ve been working there?

I have to say, no doubt at all on that, E-Merlin. Merlin is the principle instrument at Jodrell Bank, it’s a network of seven telescopes spread around England. When I got there I initiated the upgrade plans for E-Merlin. It’s gone a little slower than we’d hoped, but it’s all coming together right now.

The fibre connections for the telescopes are in, the new receivers are there, the new software’s ready, the commissioning process is happening. Again this is, to use that word again, transformational. E-Merlin is going to be 25-30 times more capable than the old Merlin. That’s been great, just to see the people get excited, get involved in this. See the scientific community put forward some fantastic projects. It’s a little sad that I’m not going to be there as it becomes a fully commissioned telescope, but of course I’m not going to not have any contact with people. I’ll watch very carefully what happens. That’s been really exciting.

You’ve spent the last six months on sabbatical at ICRAR, what was your favourite part?

Actually exploring Western Australia has been great. We had family over a few weeks ago and got out and saw a reasonable amount, I can’t say a lot of the state, because it’s a huge place. That’s been really good.

Being able to focus, as well, on doing some science. I’ve actually managed to get three papers into the journals. I just heard this very morning that one of them has been accepted, so that’s been good, being able to put the administrative stuff to one side. That’s going to take off again in June though.

I think the reason I came to Perth and to ICRAR was I was interested in seeing a new organisation grow from nothing, essentially, a couple of years ago. To see what kind of role it might play in the SKA. I’m quite impressed with the ambition of people here. The role they want to play. Just watching this new organisation be born has been quite interesting. I’ve learned a few things from how that’s been done. I’ve really enjoyed it, it’s a good bunch of people here.