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Six-year-old Matthew Bailes waits on the edge of Adelaide’s Glynburn Road for a gap in the busy traffic. He sees an oncoming car and wonders why he can see it.

Later he asks his parents, “Why can we see cars? Why can we see anything?” – deceptively simple questions that his parents’ high-school education hadn’t equipped them to answer. “It just made me wonder how the universe worked,” he now explains simply.

About a billion years before that suburban Adelaide scene, in a galaxy far, far away, a cataclysmic event occurs, releasing an unimaginably powerful burst of energy. It’s gone in the blink of an eye, but sends a blast of radiation that ripples out through the vast, cold vacuum of space. At some point in its billions-of- light-years journey, this wave washes over a small blue planet in one arm of a spiral galaxy, and its radio shriek is picked up by an antenna on a dry red continent.

Yet again, Matthew Bailes – now working as an astrophysicist at Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology – finds himself asking, “Why can we see this?”

The answer was so astounding, its cosmological implications so profound, that Matthew and his colleagues are now being whispered about as contenders for a Nobel Prize in Physics.

The boy who asked the right questions

Between those two events, Matthew – now Professor Bailes, director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery – has done a lot of asking and answering of questions about the universe.

The precocious child who could add and subtract before starting school grew into a talented student nicknamed ‘The Professor’. He loved the rules and logic of mathematics, and consistently excelled in it. Then, in Year 10, he discovered physics.

“We learnt about force equals mass times acceleration, and I went home and stripped my bike of every bit of extraneous weight so it would be easier to ride home,” Matthew recalls.

It was love at first lesson: the discovery that equations could describe how things – from cars to planets – moved. It captured his imagination and set him on the career path he still walks today.

Matthew’s father wanted him to study engineering. But a charismatic first-year university lecturer opened his eyes to the possibility of a career in physics. He changed degrees and moved out of home, determined to make a career as a scientist.

For his honours project at the University of Adelaide, Matthew chose to study pulsars. These spinning neutron stars have magnetic fields that focus their energetic radiation into two polar beams of such intensity that they can be seen more than 100,000 light-years away as they rhythmically sweep past with the star’s rotation.

“That aspect of physics I really found exciting; the black holes and neutron stars and relativistic gravity,” Matthew explains.

Head in the stars

The chance to delve deeper into these cosmological phenomena came in 1985 at a national astronomy meeting, where he bumped into antipodean astrophysicist Richard (Dick) Manchester, a world authority on pulsars.

“He was surprised that I knew so much about pulsars, but I was kind of in love with them,” Matthew says. He began a PhD at CSIRO and the Australian National University (ANU), with Dick, and Ken Freeman, another astrophysicist, as his advisers.

The high-achieving, hard-working Dick and the politically astute and knowledgeable Ken set the tone for Matthew’s career. When he was considering who to ask to referee his thesis, Ken told him to send it to scientists with the most fame and influence in the field.

So he sent it to Venkatraman Radhakrishnan, then head of the Raman Research Institute in India. At that time, Venkatraman and Matthew had been locked in a major scientific dispute.

“Even though we were on opposite sides of the debate, I sent my thesis to him to mark, almost as a challenge,” Matthew says. It was a ballsy move, but it paid off. “He recommended me for the prize for the best PhD at ANU, and the next time I saw him, he said, ‘You kicked my arse.’”

The PhD won the university’s Crawford medal, which led to a job at the University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Observatory. Matthew moved with his wife – a medical doctor – to the UK to work with another of the “pulsar gods”: Andrew Lyne.

Matthew particularly enjoyed intellectual jousting with Andrew. “[He] and I got on very well, although my PhD was arguing against his favourite model of how neutron stars evolve,” Matthew says. “I remember I gave my first talk when I arrived here, basically slamming Andrew’s theories on magnetic field decay in neutron stars.”

Matthew also took it upon himself to add graphical interfaces to Andrew Lyne’s data software. At the time, Andrew’s team had been studying an odd pulsar, the rotation of which was proving hard to decipher.

Matthew’s new tools suggested there was a wobble that could be explained if there was a planet about 10 times the size of Earth orbiting the pulsar. “We thought we’d discovered the first planet outside the solar system, which is one of the holy grails of science,” Matthew says.

With great excitement, they published a paper in Nature in 1991 announcing their discovery, with Matthew as lead author. It made global headlines, and for six months they were feted at astronomy conferences around the world.

Mathew Bailes photographed on the corner of Shakespeare and Glynburn Road, Tranmere SA.
It’s ironic that an astrophysicist who’s generated more than $75 million worth of research should lack confidence. Image credit: Randy Larcombe

Then, a week before Andrew was scheduled to give a talk on the planet at an international astronomy conference, he discovered a flaw in their processing. When it was corrected, the planet disappeared.

“Andrew turned up at my house at 7am and said, ‘I think you know why I’m here,’” Matthew says. “I said, ‘The planet?’, and he said, ‘Yes’. I said, ‘It’s gone?’. He said, ‘I’m afraid so.’”

That moment has haunted Matthew ever since. The groundbreaking discovery was retracted, and Matthew seriously considered leaving science altogether. “For a week or so I was thinking, I’ll never get a job, I’ll never get a grant, everybody’s going to review our papers much more harshly,” he says. “I was pretty devastated.”

But his love of pulsars wouldn’t let him quit. He got back to work at Jodrell Bank, then returned with his wife and child to Australia to work, first at CSIRO, then the University of Melbourne, and finally Swinburne University. He brought with him two substantial research grants from the Australian Research Council that enabled him to establish what is now the Swinburne Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing.

During a visit to the Parkes telescope, a conversation with his former student Duncan Lorimer, now a professor of physics and astronomy at West Virginia University, involved an unusually bright one-off burst of radiation first spotted by Lorimer’s student David Narkovic. A new class of rarely repeating pulsars had previously been discovered by Maura McLaughlin, who was also Duncan’s wife. But this one was very different.

Duncan and Matthew analysed the data of this strange flash, looking at the characteristics that would indicate how far away the burst had occurred – in particular, how much the lower frequencies of radio waves were delayed by encountering random electrons in their journey through a near-vacuum.

Their conclusions were astounding: the source was a billion light-years away, which would make it both mind-bogglingly distant, and powerful. They checked, and rechecked, Matthew’s phantom extra-solar planet lurking in the back of his mind. Then they decided to publish. “We just thought, if this is real, this is so enormous that it’s worth the risk,” he says.

The “Lorimer Burst” paper, published in Science in 2007, blew open a whole new astronomical phenomenon. Hundreds of these so-called fast radio bursts have since been discovered by astronomers around the world. A repeating fast radio burst detected by the giant Arecibo telescope in Chile “proved that the distance was cosmological, and then it was like, ‘Oh, there’s a whole new area of science now.’”

That discovery earned Lorimer, McLaughlin and Bailes the prestigious Shaw Prize in Astronomy in 2023, earmarking them – as a Shaw Prize often does – for a possible Nobel Prize.

It was a confidence boost, Bailes says, acknowledging that it’s ironic that an astrophysicist who’s generated more than $75 million worth of research grants should lack confidence. It also finally banished the spectre of the nearly career-ending error of the phantom planet.

While the Shaw Prize brings considerable scientific fame, prestige and validation of a worthy career, Bailes cares far more about the relationships and careers he’s nurtured along the way.

“Every year there’s a Shaw Prize winner, but the relationships I have with my former students are very important to me,” he says. He continues to invest so much of himself in being a mentor and the kind of leader he looked up to when he was a student. And that brings rewards that no prize can ever match.

“It’s those little moments where you get with a group of people, when you’ve got a team and you’ve made some breakthroughs, and it’s like, ‘This is awesome.’”