From a young age, astrophysicist Robin Cook had a deep desire to understand the world around him.
“It was never good enough to accept things at face value … I always wanted to understand the inner workings of things,” he said.
It was this natural curiosity that led him to pursue a career researching space and its unknowns.
“It’s not really surprising that I naturally went towards astronomy,” he said.
“And for me, that’s really exciting.”
Looking at the ‘beautiful spirals’ of galaxies
Dr Cook is a research associate at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), run by Curtin University and the University of Western Australia.
Founded in 2009, the research centre undertakes data-intensive astronomy, engineering and science.
Dr Cook’s area of research within ICRAR is on the evolution of galaxies, more specifically the structure of these galaxies.
“My specific area of research looks at … the shapes of galaxies, whether they’re these beautiful spirals, like our own Milky Way galaxy, or these massive elliptical mosh-pit-like galaxies, and galaxies have these different structures, these different shapes,” he said.
Dr Cook’s research process beings with asking questions.
“How can you go from a universe that started off as just clouds of hydrogen gas, the simplest element in the universe and then allowing 10 billion years of evolution, having galaxies with enormous amounts of structure and complexity?” he asks.
His role in developing the understanding of galaxy evolution is in measuring them, a task that he says can be challenging.
“Measuring the numbers and quantifying the shapes of galaxies is a really important thing and quite a difficult thing to do, so we spend a lot of time measuring them and … comparing them to different aspects of the galaxy and trying to understand ultimately, their evolution,” he said.
Dr Cook’s research got an enormous boost last week when the world had the first glimpse of images from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the biggest and most powerful space telescope.
The images from this ground-breaking technology are a game changer for astrophysicists like Dr Cook.
“I plan to use this unprecedented imaging data to study never-before-seen galaxies in the distant universe by measuring their morphologies and the characteristics of their stars,” he said.
Breaking down ideas
Measuring galaxies isn’t the only challenge in academia.
For many students new to scientific fields, the scientific method is a very thorough process.
“It’s a continual process of putting forward ideas and then kind of breaking them down. And that’s difficult for students coming into this for the first time.”
Dr Cook said the scientific method was key in unlocking new knowledge and he was intrigued by the discoveries that came from using it.
“We do also discover some really fascinating things, so [astronomy is] an excellent field to be in.”
Dr Cook, who is a young career researcher, said he still couldn’t believe the wonder of being an astrophysicist.
“I sort of pinch myself, that I can go into work every day and … look at the universe and see things that no-one has ever seen in their life before,” he said.
“I’m the only one to see these unique objects, it’s quite a great thing to be doing.”
Beyond researching never-before seen objects in space, Dr Cook also has a keen interest in the history of astronomy, particularly the ways in which Indigenous cultures have used it for tens of thousands of years.
“It’s so fascinating to be living here in Australia, where we have the oldest continuous culture living here,” he said.
“Indigenous cultures were using astronomy, not just as a storytelling technique, but actually as a tool for navigating, for time keeping, for record keeping.”
And despite the vastness of the universe, which some may find daunting, Dr Cook said our place in the universe was “grounding”.
“All of the atoms in the universe were made inside stars, either through the fusion of atoms into heavier ones, like iron and oxygen and all the fun stuff that we have around us, but then also through spectacular supernova explosions when stars die out,” he said.
“Knowing that we came from the stars in the universe and we’re part of the universe itself is quite a humbling thought.
“We are a part of this universe. We’re not just inside of it.”