A Letter To My 17-Year-Old Self, By Astronomer And Astrophysicist Alan Duffy

Even astrophysicists can bomb uni admissions.

Swinburne University of Technology astronomer and astrophysicist Alan Duffy spends a lot of his time investigating the larger properties of the universe like how galaxies form, as well as passionately explaining it to as many people as possible. He’s performed multiple TED talks, hung out with science superstar Neil deGrasse Tyson and moon tourist Buzz Aldrin.

Here, in partnership with Swinburne University, Alan gives advice to his 17 year old self, right before choosing the life of science.

Hey Duffy,

It’s been a while. I’m actually twice your age now. Yes. That old.

I know what you’re thinking, what am I possibly going to choose to study at university? Which university am I even going to choose?

Well, spoilers: you’ll take your Oxford exams, alongside your smarter classmate Alison who gets in. You, on the other hand, will meet up with your cousin at Oxford and party all night, revelling in the freedom that uni offers. Turns out that final interview stage doesn’t go so well under the cloud of a hangover.

But don’t stress, it’s actually the best hangover you’ll ever have as, in hindsight, you definitely weren’t ready for spending the next four years smashing out lectures and assignments in the likes of Oxford. Instead you get to do those things and grow as a person in a university that values both. You end up at the University of Manchester.

Manchester is a metropolis in comparison with your hometown Ballyclare, and even Belfast (which really won’t seem that big soon). You’ll see such diversity. So. Many. People. And no one knows you in this new city so you get to grow into the person you have suspicions you may actually be:

Someone who loves learning, but also socialising.

Someone who enjoys studying alone in the library, but loves telling others about what you found.

Someone who misses home and family, but wants to explore the world.

I know in school you always worked toward the next exam, with a good grade being the most important thing you can get from an education, but you’ll come to understand how narrow a definition of success that is. The stuff you learn in university is so much more than just what you can test. You grow as a person, learning to interact with everyone you come across and share ideas. You explore the freedom of a city that has everything.

The best thing you’ll do is apply for an EU Scholarship to spend a year in the Netherlands and study physics there (sorry meant to tell you earlier, you scrap medicine as your uni choice and apply for the wonderful world of physics).

I don’t want to scare you, but it turns out, due to an administrative failure, your lessons at Amsterdam aren’t in English. They’re in Dutch. You’ll spend that year copying the physics notes in Dutch from the blackboard and translating them using an English textbook. I can honestly say that the hardest moments of your life will be in this year but you’ll become fluent (in Dutch and adversity) by the end and it’ll be one of your proudest achievements. Good luck though. It’s a tough period.

That’s the biggest lesson I can give. Say yes to everything. Become horribly over-committed — although your pre-dawn rowing sessions after working nights in a cocktail bar may be a bit silly. You’ll somehow get through it all. You’ll test yourself and you’ll (mostly) succeed.

At university you’ll meet the most wonderful people you can possible imagine and you will love them like family, but make sure to hold onto those school friends you share so much history with. Don’t stress about the ones that drift away easily — turns out that all you had in common with most of them was school. That’s cool, you’ll all realise that in time (although Facebook friendship requests from them makes that a bit more awkward).

Oh yeah, Facebook. There’s a weird thing coming called social media. Do me a favour would you and don’t post every silly photo with the rugby team online plz? Thx. (Those are future words) I’m actually really glad you weren’t developing as a person in 2016, making mistakes that are preserved online forever, that’s a tough way to grow up. And trust me: employers will look at your profiles and tagged photos. Please limit the damage and try not to be in quite so many embarrassing ones.

That’s it. It’s completely cool that you don’t know exactly what you want to study (or where) much less what you want to ultimately do as a career. Just follow your curiosity and you’ll succeed in it because you love it rather than try to force yourself into a path you hate. You’ll see many friends around you having to re-set their direction onto the path they should have taken all along.

It might seem a little self-interested to wish you well Duffy, so I’ll just say I’ll catch you soon (and much sooner than you can imagine 17 years can pass).


Ps. Don’t grow sideburns. They don’t work for you and no, no one likes them.

It’s time to declare your VTAC preferences. At Swinburne we say don’t over think it – just follow your heart and choose what feels right for you. At Swinburne you’ll know you’ve chosen the right path.