the gentlewoman

The Calling

It is thanks to the acclaimed work of Professor Jo Dunkley that we know the age of the universe (14 billion-years) and its weight (1.5 × 1053 kg) and that by 2021 we’ll know the rate at which it expands. But for the 39-year-old scientist it was never about prestige (currently professor of physics, Princeton University; alma maters: Trinity Hall, Cambridge and Magdalen College, Oxford) or prizes (the Maxwell Medal; the Fowler Prize; the Rosalind Franklin award), she just wanted to do what she enjoyed most. Her research in cosmology has taken Professor Dunkley to the edge of the universe and made her one of the preeminent astrophysicists in the world. With her newest book, Our Universe: An Astronomer’s Guide, she unfurls the mysteries of the cosmos for us all to enjoy, but first, Professor Dunkley tackles the intricacies of our questionnaire for creative visionaries.

Professor Jo Dunkley

Richard: How do you start your day?

Jo: The mornings tend to be quite regimented because I have two young children. So we’re up at 7: breakfast, prep for school, and out the door by 8.30. I’m then usually at the university by 9. Depending on whether it’s a teaching or research day, I’m either with my PhD students or working with my research team. Typically we have a lunchtime seminar discussing our latest observations or discoveries.

R: What discoveries can you share with us today?

J: So, we’re working on a project that’s investigating how fast the universe is growing. We’re using this telescope in Chile, the Atacama Cosmology Telescope. It’s up at 5,000m in the Atacama Desert and 6m in diameter, so it’s pretty big. But it’s unusual in that it doesn’t measure the type of light we can see with our eyes – it’s more like microwave light.

R: As in the kitchen appliance?

J: Exactly. Only it’s coming from space. It allows us to see the very earliest images of the universe that we possibly can. From these we’re trying to extract a number, which is then essentially how fast the universe is growing. At the moment, there is a potential problem with our model of the universe because two different ways of looking at space is giving us two different answers. I want to figure out which is most accurate.

R: What activities would you say take up the biggest and smallest shares of your day?

J: The biggest would be meeting with my research team, for sure. Then the smallest is writing computer code, trying to disentangle data myself, which is actually one of my favourite things to do. Computer coding is the roots and real heart of my work – it connects the observations of the sky with the theories of the universe. But my role is more managerial so it’s actually the thing I spend my time on least. I get to answer email instead.

R: What’s your relationship with email like?

J: I’d love to be the kind of person who has their inbox at zero, but I just get too many, especially group ones because all the work I do is team-based. It’s currently at 40 so I’m not doing too badly. I did recently deactivate email on my mobile phone though.

R: Do you enjoy managing people?

J: I do. I’m good at figuring out where people’s skills are best applied and I try not micro-manage and let people take responsibility for what they’re good at.

R: Do you impose deadlines in science? Or is it a case of we’ll have the result when we have it?

J: We do have to adhere to deadlines because we have an obligation to report our results to the institutions that fund our work. The project in Chile is funded by the National Science Foundation, a US government agency, and we have a timeline for delivering our results to the public by 2021. If you don’t, chances are they won’t fund the next project. The intermediate, hard deadlines can be quite pressurised. And I haven’t even mentioned the competition.

R: The competition?

J: You’re never the only team investigating a particular hypothesis. There are competing teams in other parts of the world who are striving for similar results. Right now there’s another team in the South Pole investigating the universe’s rate of expansion. And we want to be the first!

R: What was your first encounter with astrophysics?

J: It wasn’t really until I went off to Cambridge that I was exposed to the really cool aspects of physics. I had this great course where I was introduced to the concept that time and space are not absolute: time can pass differently depending on how fast you’re moving and space also changes depending on how fast you move. It blew my mind. But even then I didn’t think I wanted to be a scientist; I thought scientists were a bit boring.

R: What were your ambitions as a schoolgirl?

J: I didn’t have loads of ambitions. I just wanted to do stuff that I enjoyed. My father was very clear about that: decide what you enjoy doing and find a job in that. And I discovered quite early on that I enjoyed doing maths and using it to answer complicated questions or to model things like how a car rolls down a hill or how something flies through the air. It was towards the end of my school career that I realised that I wanted to use maths to answer big questions about how the world works. But even then I didn’t consider being a research scientist. I’d spent my summers volunteering with NGOs in Ecuador and Thailand so I figured I’d do something like that.

R: Who or what had the biggest influence on you?

J: Travelling to Ecuador when I was 18 was a real eye-opener. It was the first time I’d experienced a developing country and seen real poverty. But it also taught me that people are the same all around the world and you can make connections with people everywhere. That’s one of the things I love about working in science: it’s a big global community and we’re all asking the same questions. I should also make an honorary mention of my secondary school physics teacher, Barbara Pomeroy – she was also really important to me.

R: What would you say to your teenage self now?

J: Be confident and do what you’re passionate about. I struggled with confidence when I was younger, particularly going off to university, and while it didn’t impede me, it probably got me down more than it should have.

R: What would you say is your biggest achievement?

J: My team and I were responsible for making the best estimate of the age of the universe. We had the most precise data and I ran the bit of code that spat out the number, 14 billion years. That was pretty cool.

January 2019. Interview by Richard O’Mahony. Portrait by Suki Dhanda.