Fixing leaks to cosmic peaks as plumber unblocks secrets of the universe

Paul Eyers
By Paul Eyers
5 Min Read

After spending their day looking at dark matter down black holes, the last thing most plumbers would want to do is more of the same when they get back home. 

But most plumbers aren’t Rod Stubbings

From unclogging drains to decoding the cosmos, Rod’s skill set is as vast as the universe he gazes into through his telescope every night.

With one eye on the stars and the other peering down pipes, the Gippsland plumber has proved that his talents have no apparent blockages.

He is just one of three people worldwide to have made 400,000 measurements of the brightness of variable stars and their variability.

Rod spends every clear night looking through the lens of his 22-inch Dobsonian telescope, named Infinity, mapping changes in approximately 700 stars year-on-year.  

His work has helped hundreds of professional and amateur astronomers across the world understand our galaxy and the stars which inhabit it. 

Reporting exciting changes to a network of fellow stargazers, his findings are often investigated further by large-scale ground and space telescopes worldwide. 

Living at the base of Victoria’s Strzelecki Ranges, Rod has built his garden observatory, where he works mainly from memory to monitor the brightness of up to 300 stars every evening.  

But despite his now sky-high astrology expertise, the plumbing expert says his cosmology know-how was only sometimes universal, initially struggling to operate his first telescope almost 40 years ago. 

Since then, he’s learned while “on the job” to provide valuable data to the astrology community. 

“I don’t know what I’m going to see each night. Some nights, there will be ten outbursts or more amongst my list of stars. Some nights, just one or two. But each night, that leads to an alert I send to astronomers around the world, enabling them to study outbursts in the stars of interest to them,” he said. 

What started as a pastime has since grown into an important star monitoring metric for some of the world’s best astrologists. This has allowed Rod to author more than 100 refereed research papers and change the classification of certain stars. 

“My favourite star is AR Pavonis; it is a symbiotic binary star with eclipses every 604 days that last 70 days. I’ve got 14 years of data, which I share with a Slovakian astronomer,” he said. 

Despite having stars in his eyes, Rod says he has never considered downing tools to spend more time staring into space but admits his passion does lead to the odd late start.

“The local builders know that if the weather’s good, I won’t be on site until smoko,” he joked. 

Those long nights have begun to pay off for the plumber, who reached the impressive milestone of 400,000 visual variable star observations recorded over the last 30 years.

An image of the moon taken by Rod.

Last month, he was awarded the Astronomical Society of Australia’s (ASA)  Berenice and Arthur Page Medal, a prestigious biennial honour given to amateur astronomers for their scientific contributions to advance astronomy. 

ASA President and Associate Professor Stas Shabala says Rod’s contributions have significantly advanced Australian astrological science.

“Rod’s work reminds us that everyone can look at the night sky and observe. Rod has shown how ‘amateur’ observations can make a real difference to our understanding of the Milky Way and the Universe,” he said. 

“The big telescopes on Earth and in space can’t see everything. Amateur astronomers like Rod play an important role in observing changes in the night sky that merit detailed investigation.” 

ASA Prizes coordinator and Melbourne Planetarium astronomer Tanya Hill says Rod’s diligent nature of observations had helped draw attention to star changes that would otherwise go undetected by the globe’s professional astronomers.

“The quality of his observations is highly regarded and trusted. He has detected many rare and significant outbursts, which has helped to advance knowledge on dwarf novae and black hole X-ray binaries.

“It is particularly impressive that his observations have contributed to the reclassification of specific stars, and by making hourly observations of stars such as U Piscis Austrini and SW Crateris that has correctly determined their short periods, which professional surveys simply can’t achieve due to a lack ofdata points.”

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Paul Eyers has worked as a journalist for a range of media publishers including News Corp and Network Ten. He has also worked outside of Australia, including time spent with ABS-CBN in the Philippines. Stepping away from the media, Paul spent five years sharpening his tools in construction - building his skill set and expertise within the trade industry. His diverse experiences and unique journey have equipped him with an insider view of Australia’s construction game to dig deep into the big stories.