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PhD student, space enthusiast and avid YouTuber

Matthew Allen, PhD student at the School of Physics and Astronomy and presenter/creator of Youtube channel 'UKAstroNut', answers our questions about his research, his life as a Youtube star, and the stars themselves.

Man looking into the camera and crossing his arms.

Can you tell us the title of your research project and a little bit about it?

The title of my project is 'The study of the evolution of elliptical galaxies', which might sound a bit complicated, but it's actually really simple.

In the universe there are billions of galaxies, giant collections of billions of stars, of which our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is one. All galaxies are different. They make a different number of stars, they are different sizes and different masses, different ages and so on. But despite all their differences, their shapes can roughly be put into three categories: giant round galaxies called ellipticals, disk-shaped galaxies with incredible spirals called spiral galaxies and ones that have odd shapes called irregular galaxies.

We know that irregular galaxies are made when two galaxies smash into each other, causing the colliding galaxies to form one new oddly shaped galaxy. However, we're not really sure how spiral or elliptical galaxies form. We think that one type probably evolves into the other, but we don't know how or why. So I look at lots of galaxies of different ages and try to understand how galaxies have changed and evolved over the history of the universe.

What made you decide to study at Cardiff?

I did my undergraduate degree at Cardiff University. I remember coming here and being really impressed. The Physics department is involved in so many great projects, such as the European Space Agency missions Herschel and Planck. Data and results from these are used in projects for undergraduates. It's pretty amazing to say you used this incredible scientific data during your degree.

"The Physics department is involved in so many great projects, such as the European Space Agency missions Herschel and Planck."

I love Cardiff as a city as well. It's like a massive city, but condensed down so everything you want is close by. If you want to get away from the city, you can be in the countryside in 10 minutes. As a Somerset boy, this was a big appeal to me!

After my undergraduate degree I worked for the European Space Agency (ESA) for a year on one of their new missions. I learnt that if I wanted to carry on the kind of work I did at ESA I would need to do a PhD. I had a few offers from other universities, but I love Cardiff too much, so I came back. I'm even starting to eye up jobs for after my PhD that are in the local area!

How do you manage your studies alongside your daily UKAstroNut work?

Well, when I first started I went a bit crazy and would spend most of the day dreaming up cool ideas for the YouTube channel. But after a while I learnt to balance everything. I do most of my recordings on the weekend. Then if I want to do a special video on something in the news, I run home after work and do it. I have to keep a notebook next to me at work though, just in case a great idea suddenly pops into my head!

What made you decide to start your own YouTube channel?

I'm really interested in doing scientific outreach after my PhD. I wasn't really sure how to get into it, so I figured that making videos on YouTube was a really easy way to learn how to communicate about science things. I think that social media and sites like YouTube are such a great opportunity for people to get themselves out there, whatever it is they want to do. And it's so simple, you just need a camera and a computer.

I love it when I think to myself, 'I should explain this really cool topic', so I go off and research it to fill in any blanks I have in my knowledge. I end up spending hours reading Wikipedia, websites, papers, watching videos and anything else on the subject. I find myself learning stuff that I didn't know before! I love learning about science and I'm finding myself learning things by doing these videos, even though I'm the one who is supposed to be teaching other people.

Your videos really make your topic come to life. What makes Physics and Astronomy so exciting to you?

I love science. I wish I had been able to do every science at school. But when I came to university and I had to choose what to do, physics and astronomy was the clear choice for me. Some of the most incredible and unbelievable facts I know are physics ones. I can't comprehend how big the universe is, how powerful a Supernova is or how much of the universe is actually just empty space. I think the fact that I can't get my head around these things makes them so interesting to me.

You always ask your interviewees, so now it's down to you - what's your favourite planet?

I remember in the comments of one of my first videos someone asked me this. It seemed like such a lovely open ended question that I thought I would ask everyone it.

My favourite planet is Jupiter. It's just so interesting and incredible. For instance, it has a storm known as the Great Red Spot, that has lasted around 400 years and is 40,000km wide. To put it in to perspective, that's about four times as wide as the Earth! A lot of people also don't know that Jupiter has vast rings around it, just like Saturn. Sadly they're a bit too faint for us to see on Earth. It also acts as the Solar System's vacuum cleaner. Many of the asteroids in the Solar System that could potentially hit Earth are pulled in by Jupiter's vast mass, causing them to crash into Jupiter. It is basically the Solar System's superhero, saving us from potential disaster!

What would you tell a prospective student contemplating Cardiff for their PhD?

First of all, the most fundamental thing is that Cardiff is a great University. It has a great reputation and some of the work done here is the best in the world.

"Cardiff is a great University. It has a great reputation and some of the work done here is the best in the world."