Because Of Science

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Note: This post does not have so much to do with astronomy as it does with my feelings about astronomy and how my feelings have evolved.  It's going to read very much like a personal blog post.  If this does not interest you, stop reading here.

I talked to John Huchra today.  It's probably fairly obvious that this was a rather one-sided conversation, but such is life.  I wasn't going to mention him on this blog, but I think it's more appropriate now that it is no longer an ongoing class assignment.  And I can't write an astronomy blog without talking about him, seeing as he's the reason I'm studying the subject.

I'm told I first met Dr. Huchra at a party when I was an 8th grader.  We met by chance.  He was the married to the friend of a friend of my father's.  I don't remember this meeting at all.  The first time I remember meeting him, I was asking him for a job of sorts.  My high school had an institution called project week in which we all took a week off in January to do something exciting in a field that interested us.

So in January 2008 I found myself shadowing Dr. Huchra and doing some busy work that I now doubt was actually of any relevance to his research.  It's funny; I don't actually remember much of the science part so much as sitting down and having coffee with him.  I don't even like coffee.  I have an exclusive long term relationship with tea.  I only drank the coffee because he bought it for me.  He handed me a mug, we walked down to the lobby and filled up with some sludge that claimed to be from Starbucks.  I tried to pay and he told me I could get it next time.  I can't even remember what we talked about.  That's my most vivid memory of the professor.  It's also my greatest regret—the one I haven't been able to get out of my head since last October—I never bought him coffee.

When I arrived at Caltech, I was absolutely certain I wanted to do whatever it was that he did.  Never mind that I had no idea what he actually did.  He was my mentor and I was determined to make him proud.  I'm still not entirely sure what he did.  It's a bit beyond my current knowledge base.  Anyway, this is all a bit beside the point.  I talked to John Huchra today.  I went through my SURF last summer feeling guilty that I was working in his building when he was gone.  A building that I, as an undergrad, had no right to.  I talked about that too.  It's why I've been avoiding visiting him.  I may have a SURF at the CfA again this year, though, and I had to deal with it some time.

So we talked.  And I realised that over the last term I no longer want to be him.  Impress him, yes.  Live up to his expectations, yes.  But be him, no.  If I go into his field, it will be entirely a matter of chance.  I don't know what I want to do with my life anymore.  But I do know that one day I'm going to be a real astronomer working on whatever field I find interesting.  And I have a right to work at the CfA.

An Interview With Jan Vrtilek

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

As people reading this may know, we had an assignment a while back to interview an astronomer.  As we all know, astronomers are busy people.  I got one interview back, but Dr. Jan Vrtilek at the CfA was kind enough to fill out an interview when he had time.  I first met Dr. Vrtilek several years back as the father of a high school friend.  He has since transformed from "my friend's dad" to being a colleague and I had the pleasure of talking with him several times during my SURF at the CfA this past summer.  His support and advice were valuable resources.

What is the difference between an astronomer and an astrophysicist at this point in time? Which, if you have a preference, are you?

My short answer would be that there's really no difference at this point in history, and that astronomy/astrophysics is really just a branch of physics (which is why a strong background in physics is likely the optimal preparation for an astronomy/astrophysics career). But a fuller accounting may be a bit more complicated: because astronomy/astrophysics is largely not an experimental science in the usual sense (with exceptions for some areas such as laboratory astrophysics) there is an ongoing history of empirical/statistical/classification studies that can run ahead of a well-developed physical understanding; historically, such work has been associated more with the "astronomy" than the "astrophysics" aspect of the science, and some of these historical associations are still reflected in the subject areas of papers that have shown up in, say, the Astronomical Journal rather than the Astrophysical Journal. But these are small effects, and not something that I think is much worth worrying about.

What are your primary areas of research as an astronomer/astrophysicist? How did you get interested in them?
I work principally in the are of galaxy groups and clusters, with emphasis on the mechanisms of AGN feedback on intragroup and intracluster gas. The decision to work in this area was essentially 'opportunistic': when I joined the Chandra project a couple of years before launch, I had just returned to the CfA from a couple of years working at NASA Headquarters in D.C., and there was an opportunity to move from my earlier area (molecular astrophysics) into a new, potentially very exciting area related to what Chandra would do (and indeed, it turned out that Chandra has made quite remarkable contributions in this area, so it turned out very well).

How did you get into astronomy/astrophysics? What did you study as an undergrad? Where did you go to graduate school and why?
I was a physics and math double major as an undergrad at Wisconsin/Madison. As my undergraduate time was drawing to completion, I know that I would need a specialization, and thought about what area would hold long-term appeal for me. Given my liking for the two astronomy courses that I'd taken, my experience with a quite unusual summer program in high school (the Summer Science program, that has been running for a half century, and is now operated as a nonprofit by its alumni: see, and the general excitement and promise of the field, the choice wasn't difficult. I applied to a half-dozen graduate schools, and five accepted me. These were days when travel was expensive (at least for me) and there was no internet; I chose Harvard based on rather general considerations and with far less information than a modern student would consider acceptable.

How has your career played out? Is it what you expected? What is the typical career arc of an astronomer/astrophysicist?
In a general sense, it's about what I expected. I never had a single conception of what my future must be ("university professor or bust"), but wanted to be active in forefront work that I found exciting, and my career has done that quite well. Although I did my thesis in active galaxies, the most exciting offer had me going to postdocs and then staff positions at Columbia, Goddard, and the CfA in molecular astrophysics and infrared astronomy. At that point, and with finances running low, I had an interesting offer from NASA Headquarters to join the Visiting Senior Scientist program (alas, it no longer exists) and become a visiting administrator for NASA's infrared and radio astrophysics programs. I had the great good fortune of landing in a team of terrific mentors and colleagues who are still now my close friends, and was able, among many duties, to work as program scientist for COBE, which I think of as one of NASA's greatest missions. I'm not sure that I'd want to do this work forever, but for two and a half years it was a tough but invaluable experience that taught me much about the management and funding of science, but also brought me into touch with a cross-section of the most interesting people and projects of that time. Just as I was finishing up, the Chandra project, a couple years before launch, was staffing its science center, and I was very pleased to get an offer to return to the CfA, in a new life as X-ray astronomer. This also gave me the chance to select a new research area, and I chose X-ray study of galaxy groups and clusters (as described in 'areas of research' above). 
Now all of this is hardly "typical", and I suppose that if it teaches a lesson it's that while planning and goals for your career path are necessary and important, what actually happens depends on the unpredictable fluctuations of opportunity. Flexibility is a virtue.

How have your goals evolved over the course of your career, if they have at all?
My goals have always been to "do something interesting" in the field, and I've never been committed a priori to some particular, narrowly-focused area. As a result of this approach, as well as of the practical consequences of managing a two-career family, I've had several switches of subfield. (The plus to this is a thrilling ride through a broad swath of astronomy; the downside is never having that confident settled feeling, but instead the sense of perpetually racing to catch up in the latest area.)

If you hadn't gone into academia, what would you be doing with your education in astronomy/astrophysics?
Given my long association with NASA projects, I suspect that I would be likely to be working in the aerospace industry.

What is the best part of being an astronomer/astrophysicist? The worst?
I'll identify the two most positive aspects for me: 
(1) The intellectual excitement and challenge. I hardly have to expand much on this for you -- you're already in the middle of it. For me it has aspects of using physics I like in really cool situations on the grandest scale, a sense of contribution, however modest, to an enduring and worthwhile enterprise, and the pleasure of great variety. 
(2) The company of my colleagues. I have been very fortunate in my colleagues and friends. I try to be surrounded by people who are smarter than I am (I strategy I strongly encourage!), and who are also people of decency, humor, and integrity with whom I work on a basis of enduring trust and friendship. This matters immeasurably to the quality of life. 
As to the worst, there are the inevitable exhaustion, frustration, and uncertainty. But you are not likely to escape occasional encounters with these in any challenging profession, and there is no line of work that I can think of these days that will offer you a sure path to peace and security!

What can aspiring astronomers/astrophysicists do to make things easier for themselves? i.e., what do you wish you'd known as an undergrad?
I can't offer much more here than the obvious: get a really solid physics and math background. Work with a strong sense of strategy. Find good advisors and listen to them. Find talented, reliable, congenial collaborators. 
There is maybe one point at which particular care is warranted. When you're going for your PhD, your choice of advisor and research group is critical. This is a spot where problems can arise that cost you much time and frustration. You'll want to assess very carefully the project (for how workable it is and how it will place you for your future plans), the advisor (for success with earlier students), and the entire team (for the "spirit" and effectiveness of the group).

What has been the most difficult stage of your career so far? What have been some notable inspirations along the way?
I suppose the very high level of uncertainty at various points, especially early on. There was a whole series of moves at 2 or 3 year intervals, which means being in job-search mode about half the time. It came with the uncomfortable realization that there's a fair amount of luck involved; I've gone through searches with only one offer at the end, and that makes the role of chance all too clear. I can't say too much about the importance of a really positive and supportive personal life to sustain you through the difficult spots, and to help you enjoy the smooth stretches!

Any final thoughts for the undergraduate astronomy student?
Not at the moment. You have a good set of questions! If there's anything you'd like me to clarify or expand on, please just let me know.