“May the wind under your wings bear you where the sun sails and the moon walks.”
―J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Phonetic Planet invites you to meet Conor O’ Toole, a PhD student who is studying black holes and gravitational waves in University College Dublin. He has recently completed internships at the NASA Ames Research Centre and the European Space Agency's ESTEC Research Centre.
Where in the world did you grow up, Conor?
I grew up in an area called Boardsmill, in County Meath, Ireland, right in the middle of the countryside. We lived on a pretty big farm, with 4 or 5 fields. I remember my Dad kept cattle and, later, horses, though he also kept sheep before I was born. We had a dog as well, and so many cats. At one end of the farm, the River Boyne bordered one of our fields. At the other was the main road. We were surrounded by other farms, except for right across the road, where the local football club was.
When I was nine, we moved to the town of Trim, County Meath. The housing estate we moved to is on a hill overlooking the Boyne, which runs through the town. For that stretch of the river, there has been no building or development, so there are two large fields where a local farmer keeps sheep, but where you can also go for walks. At one end of the fields is the ruins of an old church and graveyard, at the other is Trim Castle.
What are some of your favorite memories from childhood?
Other than visits from the Sheas?
Reading was one of my favourite things to do as a child. Since it rains so much in Ireland, I had tonnes of time to do that. When I was really small, we used to have a small armchair that I would sit in to read. It was particularly nice in the winter when my Mam would light the fire in our sitting room.
I used to also love the part of the farm around our house. There were a lot of trees around it, one really nice cherry blossom in particular, which was ideal for sitting in.
There was another particular spot, between a really old tree and an old wall where I used to play with one of my sisters. If I wasn't playing out there, I was inside with my enormous collection of dinosaur toys! At one point, my Granny moved into a mobile home next to our house. She turned the area outside it into a really nice garden. I used to help her with the gardening a lot, or go over and get beginners keyboard lessons.
Do you remember one special place with particular fondness?
One of my favourite places was the part of the river that ran past our farm in Boardsmill. I can remember when I was really small and my Grandad used to come visit every Saturday, if the weather was nice I would walk down to the river with him and my Dad. We had to go through a couple of fields on the way, so my Dad would tell me about the farm and the cows. Then, at the river, he and my Grandad would try to teach me to skip stones across it. I don't think I ever got one particularly far, but it was always one of my favourite parts of the week.
How has nature inspired you to live the life you are currently living?
For most people working in science, the reason we chose that career or course of study is because we wanted to understand how nature works, whether it's the animals and trees around us, or the stars in the sky. Being surrounded by nature when I was small just made me more and more curious, about everything. This led to me reading, a lot(books on dinosaurs were a particular favourite, I almost had a library of them on my own). I read a tonne of fiction, but ate up any book on science or nature. I can still remember one that was all about poisonous animals, though that might be because of the picture of a tarantula on the front (and might be why I'm not a big fan of spiders!).
At one point, my Mam and Dad bought me a telescope for stargazing. Unfortunately, I never really figured it out, and Irish weather didn't give us many clear nights, but that just made me want to learn more! That has stuck with me since then. I loved other subjects like history and art, but science was always my favourite part of school. And it's why I love what I do now, there's nothing like figuring out the answer to a question on why or how something works.
Can you recommend a special book, or books, from your childhood?
The Hobbit. I remember looking at the covers of it and The Lord of the Rings that my Mam had, and immediately wanting to read it (she still has those copies!). It was one of the old editions, with green forests and blue and black mountains on the cover. It was my favourite book as a child, and is still one of my favourites now. Not only is a great story, but reading about this amazing fantasy world was just incredible to me, and is why fantasy and science fiction are still my favourite genres. There might not be any facts or information about the real world in it, but having an imagination is just as important in science. It's how we can come up with ways to solve problems and answer the hardest questions. And for still making my imagination run wild every time I re-read it, I'd recommend it to everyone, young and old.
Our thanks goes to Conor, for taking the time out of a busy schedule to chat with us. We wish him all the best in his studies, and adventurous travels during his upcoming trip to New Zealand, where he is sure to be found exploring some of the natural surroundings that feature in the movies based on his favorite Tolkien books.