John Biretta is an Associate Astronomer at the
Space Telescope Science Institute. He has been at
STScI since 1993 and is currently in charge of the
Wide Field / Planetary Camera group. Dr. Biretta's
scientific interests are in the area of "active"
galaxies and the jets they often contain. Much of
his work is devoted to understanding how these jets
are formed, and how they propagate across enormous
distances in their host galaxies.
John grew up in Greenhills, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati.
One of his early recollections was his family going
outside one night to see a new satellite pass over.
"While I don't think we saw the satellite, I still
remember the sky that night -- richly blanketed
with countless stars; it was incredibly beautiful,"
he says. He was interested in science from early
childhood, and the influence of the Apollo space
program helped turn his interests towards astronomy
during his early teens. He soon spent many hours
scanning and photographing the skies with his home-made
eight inch Newtonian telescope (a fine instrument
which he still uses today). He obtained a Bachelors
degree in Physics from Thomas More College, a small
liberal arts college, and went on to graduate school
at the California Institute of Technology where
he obtained a PhD in Astronomy. After research positions
at Harvard and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory,
he came to the Space Telescope Institute where he
has been responsible for calibrating and maintaining
the Wide Field / Planetary Camera on board HST.
John has written over a hundred scientific papers,
primarily on active galaxies, using observations
from many telescopes spanning the electromagnetic
spectrum from the radio to X-ray wavelengths.
When not studying distant galaxies, John enjoys
photography, backpacking, gardening, and classical
violin. He and his wife Barbara live on a small
farm in rural Maryland.
Telescope Science Institute
Have you ever felt that you were "called"
to work in a particular field of endeavor? In my
case, I literally was...
Astronomy was my first love among the sciences
as a child while growing up on our family farm near
Hillsborough, North Carolina, and while attending
school there at Cameron Park Elementary, Orange
Junior High School, and finally Orange High School.
I can specifically remember the feeling and the
real change of perspective I got while less than
10, lying on my back on a hillside on our farm and
looking up at the band of the Milky Way, realizing
that I was looking at the disk of the galaxy and
that intergalactic space was to either side of it.
And I can also remember being fascinated by visits
to the local planetarium and times spent reading
everything I could get my hands on related to astronomy
and the study of the universe. But I also loved
many other things as well, and so many things that,
without ever really completely forgetting about
astronomy, I got distracted somewhat by many of
these other things for some years, during which
I had many interesting detours... And then, after
rediscovering my passion for astronomy very late
in my undergraduate career at UNC-Chapel Hill, and
working at it for some years without expectation
or even thought of gainful employment in it, it
found me again as well when Professor Morris Davis,
now Professor Emeritus at UNC, unbeknownst to me,
and somewhat to my amazement, gave my name to someone
at STScI. Continuing this life-changing sequence
of events, and about 24-36 hours after the requisite
visit and interviews at STScI, in the Spring of
1985, I was asked to come and work here - practically
plucked from the halls of UNC-Chapel Hill and deposited
here to work in the part of STScI, the Guide Star
Catalog and all-sky digital image archive project
under the late Barry Lasker, which was undoubtedly
one of the best places for eventually becoming involved
in what interested me the most - research on peculiar
or interacting and merging galaxies. And I also
got to do further coursework at Johns Hopkins with
Colin Norman, Allan Sandage, George Miley, and Alex
Szalay. I could only wish that I was as good a student
as they deserved. And I probably could not have
consciously planned such a convoluted path to one
of my childhood dreams, had I tried!
Now, all these years later, I've been very fortunate
to meet, study with, and work with many very good
people - good people in every sense of the word
- and I must say a heart-felt "thank you"
to all who have helped me and been partners, co-workers,
and fellow travelers on this journey through all
the ups and downs (and ups, again!) of a project
like HST. I've been privileged to work on many interesting
projects with HST and other telescopes, and to participate
in adventures like the Hubble Deep Fields and GOODS.
Because of my name being associated with some web
sites on astronomy here at STScI, I get letters
from all over the world, sometimes with requests
for advice on how to get into astronomy. I'm sure
this is true of others, too. Although I can't recommend
the specific somewhat unorthodox path that has brought
me to where I am now as a way for someone to get
into astronomy, especially since there are never
so many jobs in astronomy as there are in many other
fields, what I can first say to younger people or
anyone for that matter, is that there is always
more to learn, and that I am always aware of and
glad of that. And the next thing I can say is that,
especially in these times, if you want to be of
benefit to humankind, no matter what the field of
study, as long as you work to promote understanding
and love rather than hate, if you nurture lots of
interests and dreams for using your talents and
abilities in multiple areas, and pay attention to
developments in them, taking or even helping create
any opportunities that present themselves for involvement,
even as a volunteer, doing small or less pleasant
jobs and ennobling them by your effort, and if you
are not so afraid of failure to try something, nor
allow yourself to become bitter even if you fail,
if you can do something even just for the love of
it, then you can at least be glad you spent your
time doing something you loved. (And your time really
is more valuable than money, even though most of
us, myself included, have to also be concerned with
the reality of making a living.) So, if you can
do all this, then you never know when you may be
unexpectedly given the chance to live some of those
About My Hobbies...
Telescope Science Institute
I have wanted to be an astronomer since I was 7-8
years old. I was born and grew up in Ural Mounts,
a very rural part of Eastern Sibiria, where the
winter is long and cold. In one of these long and
cold winter nights when the sky was so clear, so
high, so big and endless, from one site of my horizon
to the other, covered with countless stars, I wondered
- where did it all begin....
I started my astronomy career as a technician for
the observatory of Ural State University. I observed
satellites and helped to calculate the precise elements
of their orbits. Several years later I went to Ural
State University in Ekaterinburg, Russia
to pursue my masters degree in astronomy.
Years after graduation I worked on astrometry projects
at the Pulkovo Observatory in St. Petersburg, Russia,
and later worked on studies of Earth's rotation
at the University of Latvia. In 1991 I was fortunate
to join the astrometry team at Yale
University, where I worked on the Southern
Proper Motion program. During my 10 years in the
Astronomy Department at Yale, I expanded my astrometric
interests to include stellar evolution models, particularly
the interpolation of color-magnitudes diagram of
open clusters with respect to stellar evolution.
Several papers were written during that time dedicated
to open clusters - proper motion, photometry and
stellar evolutionary isochrones.
I left Yale for the Space Telescope Science Institute
in 2001, where I am now Senior Data Analyst. My
functional work is mainly devoted to multi-wavelength
astrometric calibrations of WFPC2 and astrometric
and photometric calibrations of the ACS polarized
My work and family obligations take much of my
time. I have two girls, one is a Product Designer
and the other is studying international human rights.
In my spare time I enjoy hiking, swimming, gardening,
reading, and listening to ancient meditative Russian