Astrophysicist Alan Duffy unravels the mysteries of science

Swinburne University’s Alan Duffy has taken out the Australian Museum’s 2018 Eureka Prize for science journalism.

Science is not just for scientists. That’s the mantra of astrophysicist Alan Duffy who has carved a career making black holes, the Hubble Space Telescope and expanding universes exciting, accessible and relevant to the general public.

The 35-year-old associate professor is so good at promoting science – clocking up more than 100 television appearances and being nominated as the go-to astronomer for ABC breakfast TV, ABC radio and Triple J – that he took out this year’s Eureka Award for 'promoting understanding of science'. The award is a national event sponsored by the Australian Museum in Sydney, an institution at the pinnacle of scientific research, collection and education.

Alan’s award is considered the highest honour for an individual communicating science in any of the STEM fields (for regular folk that stands for: science, technology, engineering, maths and/or medical research).

He was nominated against two other stars of science communication. "Having them select me was incredibly humbling, especially when you see the amazing efforts of my co-finalists Professor Darren Saunders [a cancer biologist in the School of Medical Sciences at UNSW Sydney] and sanitary ecologist Dr Kate Grarock," says Alan.

Alan Duffy smiling at the camera

"It’s crucial to raise science literacy for everyone in this country."- Alan Duffy

Alan’s prize reflects his efforts presenting science discoveries in the mainstream media in an accessible and engaging way. Thanks to him, flagship breakfast TV and radio programming have started to make way for science stories to sit alongside sport and politics segments. This focus on science is something TV producers view as important for audiences to be aware of in everyday life, and in turn, deserving of broadcast. As he puts it: "With a better understanding of science, for example, Australians would better appreciate risks of not vaccinating their children. Science is a way to weigh up facts and make the best choice."

The professional astronomer is a key advocate for STEM, which he sees as non-negotiable skill sets for jobs of the future. "Australian Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel estimates 75 per cent of the fastest-growing careers need STEM skills, but more than that, technology is being incorporated into more of our existing jobs, so we need a workforce better able to understand that technology," says Alan. "Artificial Intelligence will bring greater analytic insights into just about any job and STEM is necessary to use those insights; from factory-wide performance and on-the-fly optimisation in manufacturing, to detailed and constant patient monitoring in health, to teaching students in digital classrooms." On this, Alan recommends heading to the Education portal on the Australian Science Channel "to see what jobs might be out there for you, or if you’re a teacher or parent and want to help your children learn the skills they’ll need."

Australia, says Alan, is facing many challenges that require more science to solve. "We live in an age of incredible challenges, from soil exhaustion/erosion, biodiversity loss, climate change and more, and the solutions to these challenges require more science and technology. It’s so crucial to raise science literacy for everyone in this country, not just those already interested in science."

Nevertheless, he reckons the future of science in Australia is in good hands. "I’m optimistic and there’s no better example than the enthusiastic response to the creation of the Australian Space Agency," notes Alan. Victoria, he says, could well become the home for the agency as the State has world-class advanced manufacturers, an outstanding higher education sector and the right culture of collaborating on data science and artificial intelligence.

"Our return to space and the jobs that brings will make more people aware of the value of science and how important it is in their everyday lives. Space can inspire and embolden, and as NASA’s Apollo Mission showed, this can last generations, but we can attempt many more national missions in other areas to bring even more people into all fields of science than ever before."

What does Alan say to people who never liked science much at school? How does he get them interested in it? "Firstly, a lot of people are taught a style of science in school that has no relation to science in the real world," he says. "They may have been forced to memorise countless equations, terms or numbers. In the real world, you don’t memorise, you understand. This means that I go into a new situation, job or problem and have a toolbox of techniques to investigate it. In schools, you sometimes don’t get that sense of mystery and exploration that comes with real science. I hope the idea you can uncover a treatment for a disease or find a new species would encourage anyone to join in the fun and get back into science."

Without a doubt, heart-felt passion lies at the centre of Alan’s fixation on all things science. "It allows us highly-evolved apes on a ball of rock around a star to look out into the wider universe and map its earliest moments and predict its future,” he explains. “With science, you can explore the universe and ask questions of the smallest subatomic particles that make up all matter to the very largest structures formed from trillions of stars and everything in between. How can you not be passionate about being able to explore literally everything?"

More information about Alan’s recent prize win can be found on the Australian Museum website. The Victorian Connection congratulates Alan and all the other finalists and winners involved.