Astronomy

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

This is an interview with Claire Max, Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, and Director of University of California Observatories. Max recounts her childhood in Manhattan, and she describes the formative influence of her father’s work in science on her blossoming academic interests. She describes her undergraduate education at Radcliffe where she pursued a degree in astronomy, and the opportunities leading to her graduate degree at Princeton where she studied pulsars under the direction of Francis Perkins. Max discusses her postdoctoral research at Berkeley working with Allan Kaufman and her subsequent work at Livermore Lab on laser plasma interactions, and where she did formative work developing laser guide stars for adaptive optics in astronomy. She describes her entrée into the JASON advisory group, and what it was like as the first woman to become a JASON. Max explains her decision to join the faculty at Santa Cruz, the opportunities leading to her directorship of the Observatory, and her interest in leading research in extrasolar planets. She reflects on some of the budgetary and administrative challenges she has faced at the Observatory, and she discusses some of the characteristics that her most successful graduate students have shared over the years. At the end of the interview, Max discusses the controversy over the Thirty Meter Telescope site in Hawaii, she explains why promoting diversity in the field is personally important to her, and why future advances in galaxy merger research are so promising.

Interviewed by
Jim Lattis
Interview date
Location
Kissimmee, Florida
Abstract

Interview with Mehmet Alpaslan, NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow. The interview begins with Alpaslan recounting his childhood in Turkey and several other countries, as his parents worked for the Turkish Foreign Ministry. He recalls reading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos as a teen, which sparked his intereste in astronomy. Alpaslan discusses his decision to attend the University of St. Andrews where he studied physics and astronomy. He describes his undergraduate research in modified Newtonian dynamics, as well as his introduction to extragalactic astronomy by Simon Driver, who eventually became his PhD advisor. Alpaslan discusses his PhD work with the Galaxy and Mass Assembly Survey (GAMA), including his time at the Anglo-Australian Telescope and his work writing code for data analysis. He then explains the connections which led him to the NASA Postdoctoral Program where he is a fellow at NASA Ames Research Center. Alpaslan describes the joys of observation and working with telescopes, as well as the benefits and challenges of writing your own code from scratch. At the end of the interview, he shares that although careers in academia can be difficult, the ability to work on exciting science makes it worthwhile. 

Interviewed by
David DeVorkin
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

This interview was conducted as part of the background research for David DeVorkin's biography of George Carruthers. This is a focused interview with George “Pinky” Nelson, an astronaut trained in physics and astronomy who flew three times on the space shuttle between 1978 and 1989. The interview covers his selection as a mission specialist astronaut and his experiences going through the selection process. It also covers his specific astronomical interests in solar physics and how his general interests in the space sciences, as well as a personal interest in flying, led him to apply to be an astronaut. The main body of the interview relates to Nelson’s description of the selection process, and his contacts with Naval Research Laboratory astronomer George Carruthers, who applied to be an astronaut in the same group as Nelson but was not chosen.

Interviewed by
Jon Phillips
Interview date
Location
video conference
Abstract

Interview with Abel Méndez, professor of physics and astrobiology at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. In this interview, Professor Méndez discusses his upbringing in Puerto Rico and early interest in astronomy, his education at the University of Puerto Rico and work at Fermilab, and the early stages of his work on astrobiology with NASA. He describes the origins of the Planetary Habitability Lab at Arecibo and his work studying exoplanets for potential suitability for life. Finally, he discusses the work environment at Arecibo, the impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, the collapse of the telescope’s dish, and the potential future of the Observatory.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Location
Video conference
Abstract

The interviewee has not given permission for this interview to be shared at this time. Transcripts will be updated as they become available to the public. For any questions about this policy, please contact .

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

In this interview, Robert P. Kirshner, Clowes Research Professor of Science at Harvard University, discusses his interests in supernovae and work as Chief Program Officer for Science at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. He reflects upon the shifting terminology pertaining to astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology. He discusses his experience as an undergraduate at Harvard University. Kirshner details his experience at Caltech as a graduate student and his time studying supernovae under Bev Oke. He discusses his post-doc position at Kitt Peak National Observatory and the competition they had with Palomar. Kirshner speaks about his experience working with undergraduate students at the University of Michigan and eventually becoming the chair and observatory director. He details his role as head of Optical Infrared at the Harvard Smithsonian Center. Lastly, Kirshner discusses his Nobel Prize winning discovery of using observations of distant supernovae to discover the accelerating universe.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Feryal Ozel, professor of astronomy and physics at the University of Arizona. Ozel recounts her childhood and family background in Istanbul and how her interest in science was fostered both at home and at the all-girls international school she attended through 12th grade. She describes the opportunities that led to her enrollment at Columbia University for her undergraduate education, where she majored in physics and applied math and where Jacob Shaham influenced her interest in neutron stars. She describes a formative summer internship at CERN where she worked on supersymmetric decays of the Higgs boson, and a postgraduate year at the Niels Bohr Institute, before she began her graduate work at Harvard. Ozel discusses her thesis research on magnetars under the direction of Ramesh Narayan and she describes her postdoctoral position at the Institute for Advanced Study as a Hubble fellow. She describes the academic and family considerations that made Arizona an attractive option and she explains the mechanics behind funding from NASA and the NSF. Ozel describes her favorite physics classes to teach, how she sees her role as a mentor to women students and students of under-represented groups, and she surveys recent developments in neutron star astrophysics and the interaction of gas and black holes. She discusses her contributions to the Event Horizon collaboration, and she relates her ideas on the significance of seeing a photograph of a black hole without needing observational evidence to know that black holes exist. Ozel describes her motivations in serving in scientific advisory roles and the importance of science communication and how advances in computational power have revolutionized astrophysics. At the end of the interview, Ozel discusses the outstanding question mark about making gravity compatible with how we understand the subatomic world and how this serves as a starting point for future research oriented toward fundamental discovery, and why she is particularly interested in continuing to work on black hole imaging.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Scott Tremaine, emeritus professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Tremaine discusses his current affiliation with the University of Toronto, and he provides a historical overview of the boundaries between astronomy and astrophysics. He recounts his childhood in a town north of Toronto, and he explains his early interests in science. Tremaine describes his undergraduate experience at McMaster, the opportunities that led to his graduate admission to Princeton, and the exciting developments that compelled him to focus his thesis research on astrophysics. He describes his dissertation on the dynamics of galaxies done under the direction of Jerry Ostriker, who at the time was focused on the earliest research on dark matter. Tremaine discusses his postdoctoral term at Caltech where he worked with Jim Gunn and Peter Goldreich, and he explains his decision to take a second postdoctoral position at the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge. He describes his appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study, his decision to join the faculty at MIT, and he explains his ongoing research collaboration with Goldreich on studying Saturn's rings. Tremaine describes the intellectual origins of his book, co-authored with James Binney, Galactic Dynamics, and he explains his decision to join the University of Toronto to become the director of CITA. He describes his interests in the origins of comets, his contributions to black hole research, and his appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study. Tremaine discusses his work on exoplanets, and at the end of the interview, he surveys the importance of increasing computational power over the course of his career, the exciting advances that have been made in understanding galaxy development, and why the "three-legged" stool upon which cosmology rests - namely, on inflation, dark matter, and dark energy, is problematic.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Joseph Silk, Homewood Research Professor of Physics at Johns Hopkins, Researcher Emeritus at the Institute of Astrophysics in Paris, and Senior Fellow at the Beecroft Institute for Cosmology and Astro-Particle Physics. Silk recounts his childhood in London as the child of working-class parents, and he describes his early interests in math and his acceptance to Cambridge. He discusses the influence of the fluid dynamicist George Batchelor and the gravitational theorist Denis Sciama, and his decision to pursue graduate work at Manchester before enrolling at Harvard for his PhD research under the direction of David Layzer. Silk describes the revolutionary discovery of the cosmic microwave background and some of the observational advances that were driving the young field of cosmology and galaxy formation. He discusses his postdoctoral appointment with Fred Hoyle back at Cambridge and his next research position working with Lyman Spitzer at Princeton, and with Jerry Ostriker on black holes and pulsars. Silk describes the circumstances leading to his first faculty appointment at Berkeley and the excitement surrounding the high red shift universe, the birth of X-ray astronomy, and he describes Berkeley Laboratory’s gradual emphasis on astrophysics over his 30-year career at UC Berkeley. He discusses his long-term research endeavor to verify the prediction of the Big Bang theory and the incredible results of the COBE project. Silk describes his budding interests in particle astrophysics, which he considers a discipline distinct from astronomy, cosmology and astrophysics, and which grew from cosmic inflation. He describes the import and future prospects of supersymmetry, how his namesake contribution “Silk damping” came about, and he conveys his excitement about moon-based telescopes. Silk draws a distinction between understanding the very beginning of the universe (t = 0) and the tiniest fraction of time after that (t = epsilon) and why an understanding quantum gravity will be necessary to make advances in this field. He discusses the current controversy around the Hubble constant, he describes his decision to transfer from Berkeley to Oxford and how this led to his current slate of affiliations, including his appointment at Johns Hopkins. At the end of the interview, Silk discusses his current interests in the moon telescope project and what the legal ramifications of a permanent moon presence might look like and why, in his popular talks, he finds it important to project a sense of awe about the universe.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview dates
July 27 and August 18, 2020
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Anne Kinney, Deputy Center Director of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Kinney recounts her childhood in Wisconsin and her early interests in science. She describes her undergraduate experience at the University of Wisconsin where she pursued degrees in physics and astronomy. Kinney discusses her time in Denmark at the Niels Bohr Institute before completing her graduate work at NYU relating to the International Ultraviolet Explorer. She explains the opportunities leading to her postdoctoral appointment at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore where she focused on obtaining optical data and near-infrared data to understand spectral energy distribution for quasars and blazars. Kinney discusses her work on the aberrated Hubble Telescope and her new job at NASA Headquarters where she became head of Origins before she was transferred to Goddard where she became division direct of the Planetary Division. She describes Goddard’s efforts to promote diversity and she describes her subsequent position as chief scientist at Keck Observatory before returning to Washington to join the National Science Foundation to be head of the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences. Kinney provides a broad view of the NSF budgetary environment, and she explains the circumstances that led her back to NASA to her current work. She describes where Goddard fits into NASA’s overall mission and she explains her interest in promoting NASA in an educational framework to children. At the end of the interview, Kinney conveys her excitement about the James Webb Telescope and why she is committed to ensuring that NASA is a driver behind the broader effort to make astronomy and physics more diverse.