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Ron Buta

Ron Buta

University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa

Astronomy captured my fancy one very clear night over Baltimore, Maryland in 1965. I was sitting on a couch by a window and happened to notice a bright star. I got up and went out to look at it. I recall standing on the back porch and for the first time noticing the night sky. I had a small constellation book and determined that the bright star that originally caught my eye was Sirius. From then on, it seemed that astronomy was all I thought about. I received my PhD in astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin in 1984. My dissertation was titled "The Structure and Dynamics of Ringed Galaxies", and my supervisor was Gerard de Vaucouleurs. From 1984-1986 I was a postdoctoral fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra and worked at the Mount Stromlo Observatory. From 1986-1988 I returned as a post-doc to the University of Texas to work with Gerard and Antoinette de Vaucouleurs on the Third Reference Catalogue of Bright Galaxies. In 1989, I joined the faculty of the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

Since 1984 I have maintained a constant interest in the problems of the morphology and dynamics of galaxies with a special emphasis on ring and bar phenomena. I have always been tantalized by the subtle aspects of these features that can be linked to specific aspects of internal dynamics. NGC 4622 caught my eye years ago as an especially good example of a ringed galaxy without a bar, and one of my main motivations for the present study was to examine star formation in its ring, which I suspect was generated by an interaction with another galaxy. After I arrived at Alabama, Gene Byrd introduced me to the possibility of leading spiral structure in NGC 4622, which made the galaxy even more interesting, since leading spirals had not been definitively established in any galaxy up to that time. He had noticed in a high quality, commercially-available NOAO photograph that in addition to the two outer spiral arms which wind outward in a clockwise sense, NGC 4622 has a third arm inside its ring that spirals outward in a counterclockwise sense. If NGC 4622 is a normal rotating disk galaxy, then one set of arms must be leading. The question was, which set? Although we carried out extensive ground-based observations to try and answer this question, we were not able to determine which way the galaxy was rotating, and the question was left hanging for more than 10 years until we obtained our HST data.

In addition to my work on specific galaxies, I am actively involved in a new galaxy morphology project titled The De Vaucouleurs Atlas of Galaxies. The atlas is intended to document, with modern digital images, the de Vaucouleurs revised Hubble galaxy classification system, and will be published in 2004 by Cambridge University Press. I also dabble in paleontology and am co-editing a monograph titled "Pennsylvanian Footprints in the Black Warrior Basin of Alabama". The monograph will document the morphology and other characteristics of 310 million year old fossil footprints that were recently discovered in an abandoned surface coal mine 70 miles north of Tuscaloosa. The tracks were made by primitive amphibians and other animals that walked or crept along an ancient tidal mud flat near a Coal Age forest. As an astronomer, it is easy for me to relate to geology and paleontology because of the vast timespans of the various processes we observe. For me living in Alabama, a state with a rich natural history, the story of life on Earth is as interesting as the story of the stars.