Dunsink Lane, Dublin 15, D15 XR2R

Interview with Dr. Ray Butler of NUI Galway

Dr. Ray Butler with the Grubb Telescope in the South Dome at Dunsink Observatory. (Credit: Qi Qi Kennedy)

Dr. Ray Butler is a lecturer of Physics and Astronomy at NUI Galway. Ray presented a talk about “The Night Sky Over Ireland” for an event held in partnership with Science Gallery Dublin, TCD at DIAS Dunsink Observatory on the evening of Saturday 1st September 2018, where I interviewed him about his work and passion for astronomy.

During the time Ray was working on his PhD he studied globular clusters of stars which involved resolving objects in the middle of the clusters that are difficult to see from the ground. His group had the TRIFFID Camera which had the ability to take images of the stars millisecond by millisecond. The camera was used with different telescopes in La Palma and in Chile, to find out which stars are variable, and in one case they found the optical counterpart to a radio pulsar which was located in the middle of a cluster.

Following his PhD Ray continued to study star clusters using image processing techniques like deconvolution. These showed how even Hubble images could benefit from image processing. Ray was studying optical pulsars by finding their counterparts and using triangulation to pin down their locations. This information was passed on to researchers who were doing high time resolution.

Ray then joined the group of researchers in NUI Galway who were studying Brown Dwarf Stars. Ray had used his own high term resolution camera called GUFI (Galway Ultra Fast Imager) which was built as a successor to TRIFFID. This let him work with a much more sensitive sensor with better efficiency, but not such high time resolution. GUFI was built to study variable objects. One of the big advantages of GUFI is that it has very low noise and it can read lots of frames per second with no gaps between the images. GUFI was a good option for the research group because it allowed them to measure small variations in visible light from brown dwarfs. They measured the brightening and fading that takes place as the star rotates, and Ray is continuing this work currently.

Ray has a huge interest in night sky quality and so is studying the darkness of the night sky in different locations throughout Ireland. This has become very relevant to amateur astronomers on the ground. Nowadays tourism gets a huge boost from certification of dark sky quality, for example in Kerry and Mayo. Ray finds it fascinating to see where the darkest locations are found and to encourage amateurs astronomers and budding astronomers to go and visit them both with their families, friends, schools and other groups.

Ray remembers reading a book called, “Stars” by Patrick Moore when he was very young. He also remembers going out with the cub scouts and on many evenings while they were walking down to a scout evening when they had a really clear winter night sky he could see all the stars in his sky above and stopped to look for a while.

Being involved in Citizen Science is a part of working in astronomy. Ray remembers while being a postgrad and talking with students. During his PhD Ray delivered an evening course in Astronomy in GMIT for beginners of astronomy and interested adults. Ray gives different talks every year and he is affiliated with the NUIG Astrosoc and frequently gives them evening talks.

Dr. Ray Butler giving a talk about The Night Sky Over Ireland in the Meridian Room. (Credit: Qi Qi Kennedy)

Another one of Ray’s interests is astrophotography, which began when he started reading astronomy books with detailed pictures of celestial objects. He realised his astrophotography images showed more detail than the view through binoculars. Ray also has an artistic streak that drives him to photographing general landscapes

The astrophotography that Ray practised in the past used photographic film because there were one or two films manufactured that gave a really good sensitivity to red light, which made the nebula look better. Eventually, he moved to on to digital and he currently has a couple of digital SLRs and lenses ranging from fisheye through to mid-telephoto range. Ray takes multiple pictures and combines them using software. Depending on the image he wants to create he makes time lapses or star trails. He advises people when they are starting off to buy a second-hand DSLR with a big sensor and coupling it with a wide angle lens.

Ray says that the first step in encouraging people to study science is to foster an interest in them when they are young. This is one of the reasons he likes giving talks. He thinks it’s very good for scientists to visit schools and give talks and to give general talks. He gives talks at the school his children attend. Ray also thinks informing people about the variety of careers that studying science can lead them into in their future careers is important. Physics is a discipline that underpins a lot of different aspects of life, and there are many versions of Applied Physics such as Optics and Electronics. Physics graduates from NUI Galway have ended up in all sorts of high-end and high-tech positions.

We here at Dunsink Observatory thank Ray for visiting Dunsink Observatory and look forward to welcoming you back soon.

Ray Butler:
DIAS website:
Dunsink website:

Reported by our volunteer blogger Qi Qi Kennedy of DCU.