James Gilbert

I WON! This has been such a blast :) Now, let's go launch a space balloon...

Favourite Thing: When you think “well this is a crackers idea, but let’s just try it”, and it works!



I went to Torquay Boys’ Grammar School between 1998 and 2005, Bath University between 2005 and 2009, and since 2013 I’ve been ‘back at school’ at Oxford University.


I’ve got a Master of Engineering (‘MEng’) in Electronics with Space Science and Technology, and A-Levels in Physics, Maths and Design & Technology. My main GCSEs were in Science, Maths, English, Design & Technology, Music, and Spanish.

Work History:

I was an electronics engineer at the Australian Astronomical Observatory in Sydney, Australia. I’ve also been a hotel porter, a builder, a burger ‘chef’, an ice cream seller, and a rock concert photographer.

Current Job:

I’ve gone back to university to do a PhD in Astrophysics, building equipment to observe stars and galaxies with some (rather large) telescopes.


University of Oxford department of Physics

Me and my work

I build robotic telescope instrumentation for mapping the Universe!

My Typical Day

I’ll be tinkering with some hardware – usually a robot – or writing code to test it.

I work in a lab, but there aren’t any white coats. In my lab you’ll find three computers, a box full of tools and an iPod dock. You’ll also find Steve and Sandra, who are robots.

Steve doesn’t look like you or I, but he has a very important job to do in the world of astronomy. In a couple of years, Steve will be on top of a telescope in the Canary Islands, taking care of the complicated task of moving one thousand optical fibres into *just* the right place to catch the light from individual stars in the sky. This has to be done so quickly and with such accuracy that humans would find it impossible. With Steve, astronomers will be able to precisely measure the electromagnetic spectrum coming from one thousand stars (or faraway galaxies) in just one hour. That’s more than 2 million every year!


This is Steve! What you can’t see is how he can place things to an accuracy of the width of a human blood cell!

So on a typical day I’ll be working on Steve’s control system, either hardware (computer networks and motor controllers) or writing code for his ‘brain’.


Don’t tell the astronomers, but Steve has two secret modes:

  1. copying human handwriting, and
  2. making gin and tonics.

(Sometimes the freedom to experiment goes a bit far.)


I love my work.  I’m allowed to work pretty much however I want, because it’s the results that matter. I have a boss, but I’m never told what to do. When you’re a scientist, there’s always something you know a lot more about than anyone else, and there is a mutual respect for that. You become an expert among other experts 🙂 You still have to work hard and you still have to meet deadlines, but your work is exactly that – yours!

Ask me about Steve if you like, or about Sandra the ‘spinebot’ or ‘Starbugs’!  Starbugs are my favourite past project 😀

This is ‘the office’:


What I'd do with the money

I’d launch a high-altitude balloon project, where students like you get to send experiments to the edge of space! (pics below)


This is a weather balloon just after launch (Image credit: flickr/superciliousness)


This is the view from a weather balloon on its way to the edge of space! (Image credit: flickr/jabella)

Did you know that the outer atmosphere of Earth, about 30 km up, is similar to the conditions on the surface of Mars? Did you know that large rubber balloons filled with helium can go there?

As a way to get school students thinking about what might be useful to take to Mars in the future, I’d fund a high-altitude balloon project to send a range of student-designed experiments right into the heart of our harsh stratosphere, where the air is thin, the (electromagnetic!) radiation is high and the temperature is low.  Just like on Mars 🙂

When the balloon bursts due to the low air pressure around it, it would be tracked on its fall back down to Earth, picked up, and the experiments would be returned to their creators. Oh and there’d be an awesome on-board movie of the whole thing.

Here’s an example of a similar balloon by a guy called Dave Akerman. Dave uses a cheap computer called a Raspberry Pi to track the balloon and also to take photos and videos from ‘the edge of space’.  My balloon would be similar, but with *your* experiments on board too.

I think this is a pretty neat idea, and you can help to make it a reality if you kindly give me your vote!

Also I’d be really interested to hear what YOU would send to Mars 😀

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Imaginative, resourceful, ambitious.

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Quite possibly one of these: Coheed & Cambria, Dream Theater, Radiohead, Rammstein \m/

What's your favourite food?

Indian – the spicier the better.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Touring California in a campervan with my soon-to-be wife.

What did you want to be after you left school?

Anything that was practical and creative.

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Always in trouble for homework (lack of). Nothing serious though..

What was your favourite subject at school?

Design and technology was what I enjoyed most, but I really liked physics too.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

I got a job in Australia developing tiny robots called ‘Starbugs’. They were only an idea when I started, but I helped make them into a brand new and working technology! (I have vids if you’re interested)

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

I realised that I didn’t want to be an engineer who designed commercial products, but that I wanted to do something with a broader purpose. Discovering more about the Universe and where we came from is one of those things.

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

Perhaps a wildlife photographer :)

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

To always do work I feel is meaningful. To always know good people. To always remember to be happy.

Tell us a joke.

How do you throw a party in space? ………………. You planet.

Other stuff

Work photos:


This is Steve! Steve is one of my current projects. He will one day live on top of a telescope, where he’ll play an important role in helping astronomers observe many stars and galaxies simultaneously. Steve pick up optical fibres and positions them exactly where the light from an individual object can go down the fibre to a spectrograph.  The spectrograph measures the spectral content (the ‘colours’) of the light across the electromagnetic spectrum. From this we can work out what a star is made from, how far away it is, whether it has a planet orbiting it, and so much more – just ask me for more info!



This is a fancy photo that got taken for a newspaper article about another really cool project I’ve worked on. The little coloured things are called ‘Starbugs’. They’re a new way to do automated observations of the night sky, but on extremely large telescopes where the little critters have to travel quite a distance. I worked on this project in Australia for three years, and it’s the most fun I’ve had in my job so far. If you like, I’ll happily tell you more. Just ask!

If you get chance, check out the videos on this page (especially the Star Wars one):


Here are some of the telescopes I’ve worked on in my career so far:


The Anglo-Australia Telescope, Australia (Image credit: AAO)


The Vista Telescope, Chile (Image credit: ESO/Y.Beletsky)


The William Herschel Telescope, Canary Islands (Image credit: ING)


The Giant Magellan Telescope – not built yet, but look at the size of it! (Image credit: GMTO)

And here’s another picture of one corner of my ‘office’: