The Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS), located at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory near Amado, Arizona, U.S.A., is an observatory built to study gamma rays from extreme astrophysical phenomena in the Universe. VERITAS is now scanning the night sky searching for remnants of exploded stars, distant active galaxies, powerful gamma ray bursts, and evidence of mysterious Dark Matter particles. This website is here to help you join the exploration!
If you’re a student, teacher, collaborator, or just someone interested in the fascinating field of gamma-ray astronomy, you’ll find useful information, lesson guides, photographs, and other multimedia right here!
Meet a VERITAS Scientist!
Dr. Patrick Moriarty
Welcome to the fourth installment of "Meet a VERITAS Scientist" for the VERITAS project. These articles will be updated periodically, so please check back often to find out about members of the VERITAS science team. Our interviewee is Dr. Patrick Moriarty of Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. He spoke with Heidi Schmitt, an educator at the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum in Chicago, about his work on the VERITAS project.
HS: Where did you grow up? What were you interested in? Is anyone else in your family involved in a science career?
PM: I grew up in the suburbs of Dublin, Ireland. My parents didnÕt have much in the way of schooling, but they were determined that their children would get the education they had missed out on. I think it was the proudest day of their lives when I got my Ph.D. I have three brothers and one sister, but none of them ever had any interest in science. My wife has a masters degree in archaeology, but I have never been able to get her interested in physics. One of my two sons has a fine arts degree in sculpture. The other has a degree in languages, French and Italian, but now works for IBM. Only my daughter inherited my scientific genes. Although she studied physics and chemistry at school, she immediately switched to biological sciences when she went to college and is now entering the final year of a Ph.D. in neuroscience research.
As a child, my great passion was reading. I read everything I could get my hands on Š books, comic books, newspapers, even the back of cereal packets! I haunted our local public library. It was located between school and home, so I went there almost every day on my way home. I read books about cowboys and Indians, science fiction, geography, history, war, battles, and nature. By the time I was ten, I had exhausted everything of interest in the childrenÕs section of the library, and I pestered the librarians until they let me use the adult section. There I found books on subjects like electricity, chemistry, maths, nuclear scienceÉ and stamp collecting!
HS: When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
PM: When I was young, my father was unemployed, and I guess my main ambition was just to get a job. I canÕt remember any more specific aspirations. It was only when I was in my teens and already studying science at school that I recall deciding that I wanted to be a nuclear physicist. I was a bit disappointed to find that it wasnÕt possible to do a degree specialising in nuclear physics. I had to study general physics instead. When I started college, I discovered particle physics and was fascinated by that. As it turned out, I did my Ph.D. in hypernuclear physics, studying unstable particles called hyperons bound into ordinary nuclei.
HS: What is your role for the VERITAS project? How do you participate?
PM: Within VERITAS, I am deputy chairperson of the Blazar Science working group, helping to organise our observations of blazars. A blazar is an active galaxy at whose centre a supermassive black hole is believed to be sucking in material from its surroundings and spewing out energy in powerful jets, one of which points straight at us. As such, blazars are interesting in their own right, but the gamma radiation from blazars is also an important probe of the background light which permeates the Universe. Over the next couple of years, I will be working hard on this aspect of blazar science.
On a daily basis, I typically check the observing reports from the telescope array for any interesting results or problems. I also look at the new preprints on the astro-ph preprint server, a great facility on the internet where many new articles on astrophysics are available before they appear in the journals. I try to look through these every day to see if there are any preprints that relate to our field. I also check the Astronomers Telegrams for new discoveries. Then there are VERITAS telephone conference calls. I am typically involved in one or two a week. As an overseas member of VERITAS, this provides a regular point of contact with colleagues.
Apart from that, we have full collaboration meetings twice a year. I also travel to the observatory each year for about three weeks to take an observing shift. For me, this is a crucial aspect of my involvement, because it represents the real hands-on part of the whole project.
HS: What's the best part of your job?
PM: There are three things I really like about working in VERITAS. I get to work in an exciting research field right at the frontier of astrophysics, studying exotic objects that inspire awe in non-scientists. People always want to know about black holes and exploding stars and the like. Although, more recently people are asking about dark matter and dark energy, and even scientists donÕt really know very much about those. Secondly, I work with a whole collection of really clever scientists from all over the world, and I continually learn from them. Of course, I also enjoy visiting Arizona every year for observing shifts, where I particularly love staying in the accommodation on Mount Hopkins, not to mention travelling far and wide to attend meetings and conferences.
HS: What are some things about working in a science field that you know now but did not know when you were younger?
PM: When I was younger, I guess I thought that science just happened. I never stopped to think how it was paid for or even that it had to be paid for! I now realise the enormous amount of infrastructure needed to develop a successful science program and the time and effort that have to go into lobbying for funding. Reading about scientists as a child Š people like Newton, Darwin, Young, Einstein and so on - I always thought of them as individuals working alone. Nowadays, of course, much scientific work is carried out by teams. Some, like VERITAS, involve very large collaborations.
HS: What is your advice to students who would like to pursue a science career?
PM: There is nothing like science! Too many people worry about whether there's a job at the end of it. In these uncertain times, no career has a guaranteed future, not even banking. The job market in a promising study area can collapse before you even graduate. So if science is what you are interested in, go for it! If you change your mind later, donÕt worry. A good scientist can do anything!
Of course, itÕs not going to be easy. Almost two and a half millennia ago, Euclid is reputed to have told Ptolemy, king of Egypt, that "there is no royal road to geometry". That's still true of all science. If science were easy, everyone could do it, and we wouldnÕt need scientists. In particular, you need to work at your maths. It's the foundation for most science. No sportsperson or musician would expect to be able to excel without training and practice. The same applies to maths, and donÕt confuse computers with maths!
HS: What do you want to tell young people who may lack role models in science about your job?
PM: I don't believe I ever regarded anyone as a role model for my career. Of course, there were always the almost mythical figures like Newton, Einstein, Hamilton, etc. Brilliant as they might be, I think I always considered them to be a bit crazy and never particularly wanted to be like them.
On the other hand, if you are looking for role models, the VERITAS collaboration includes many outstanding young scientists whose work can inspire you - so keep reading this page!
HS: What are your hobbies? What do you like to do in your spare time?
PM: I love to travel, see new places, and experience different cultures. I'm interested in bird watching and particularly in trying to photograph birds. I recently got a new camera with a 30x zoom, and I've been playing with that a lot. I donÕt take part in sports myself, but I am an avid fan of rugby football. My other somewhat surprising hobby is stamp collecting. This goes back to when I was very young. I learnt a vast amount about geography, history, currency, and politics from stamps. Now it's more for relaxation, but once you start getting into perforations, watermarks, types of paper and gum, dye quality, print variations, and errors É well, it can be very interesting!
HS: What do you think the future of space exploration will look like in 10 years?
PM: I don't have any great insight into this. Personally, I don't see any advantage to manned space missions. We learn far more with far less cost in money and lives using unmanned probes. Anyway, just picking around in our own solar system seems very trivial. I prefer to think of space exploration as encompassing the whole cosmos, where we think we understand a little about maybe 4% of the Universe. We know virtually nothing about the other 96%, the dark matter and dark energy we mentioned earlier. In that context, bigger telescopes and arrays and better detectors should allow us to probe farther and deeper into space and will provide the inspiration for a new generation of astrophysicists.