This visionary astronomer appreciates stars from all angles.
Q Your new book is Extreme Cosmos. What is the most bizarre thing you have seen?
A On December 27, 2004, the Earth was hammered by a brief but intense pulse of radiation from a star called SGR 1806-20. What was bizarre is that the star is 50,000 light years away and yet this burst of light was brighter than the full moon. The radiation was so powerful it knocked out satellites in orbit, disrupted communications and altered the Earth's magnetic field. In a fraction of a second, this star put out more energy than the Sun can produce in 200,000 years. I was lucky enough to be in the box-seat for this extraordinary and unexpected event.
Q Will you be on the first commercial flight to outer space?
A Definitely not. I get terrible motion sickness, so a trip into orbit would be my idea of hell!
Q As an astronomer, what do you see when you look at the night sky?
A The view of the night sky with your naked eye is special because, unlike through most telescopes, you can see a huge swathe of the sky in a single glance. I especially love picking out the Large and Small Magellanic clouds, two entire galaxies in orbit around our own Milky Way. They can be seen only from a very dark site and, even under perfect conditions, they look like two fuzzy grey clouds. But those clouds each represent tens of millions of stars enveloped in huge glowing nebulae of gas.
Q Do you have a favourite star?
A My favourite is PSR J1024-0719. It's a collapsed neutron star with a diameter of 25 kilometres, spinning 193 times a second. It's 1700 light years away in the constellation of Sextans. It's the first object I discovered, when I was a student.
Q Best places to stargaze?
A The best stars I've ever seen are from Uluru. The Milky Way is so intensely bright you feel you need to duck to avoid hitting your head. Overseas, it's hard to go past the Andes mountains in Chile for the most spectacular skies - most of the world's biggest telescopes are located there.
Q Your ideal meal abroad?
A It's hard to go past Oyamel, a Mexican restaurant in Washington, DC. They make the guacamole alongside your table and it's the best I've tasted (oyamel.com).
Interview by Jane Reddy
Extreme Cosmos by Bryan Gaensler (New South, $29.95).