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Keith Noll

Keith Noll

I am an astronomer. I am also a husband, father, step-father, son, and brother. I am a basketball player, gardener, hiker, and photographer.

So how did "astronomer" get to be a part of that list? Perhaps it was President Eisenhower's signature on Public Law 85-568 on the very day I was born, the law that created a civilian space agency called NASA. Or perhaps it was the emotion in Walter Cronkite's voice as I sat mesmerized while Neil Armstrong guided the Eagle to a safe landing in the Sea of Tranquility. Or Mr. Carpenter, my high-school physics teacher, who left our advanced physics class alone during tests, knowing we would discuss the problems and stick with our own solutions if we thought we were right. Or maybe it was Carl Sagan's books that inspired my best friend Joe Barone to defend robotic exploration when all I could think of were the difficulties of human flight.

Or maybe it was the cheerless faces of the physics grad students, toiling in the dreary cinder-block physics labs at the University of Illinois, that convinced me to take a chance on astronomy despite the warnings of my advisor. But when asked to tell my story, I usually trace my astronomer roots all the way back to a waiting room in the back of a Sears store where my mother took a class in decorating cakes when I was 6. To help me pass the time she gave me a book on space, and my brother a book on dinosaurs. My brother became a geologist.

Keith Noll
Photo by Zoe Ledbetter

All of these factors and many more shaped my decisions over the years that have taken me to this particular place in our social universe. Similarly multiple and complex causes lie at the root of the Hubble Heritage project. My years as an instrument scientist with Hubble's main camera, a looming tenure decision, my ex-in-laws' fascination with the image of the Eagle nebula, conversations on airplanes with strangers awed by the universe, my desire to overcome the isolation of the sometimes monkish life of an astronomer, and my need to recover from the emotional blows of a miscarriage and the death of my father, all fed into the spark of a moment when the idea for Heritage was born in my mind. As it turned out, others, for their own reasons, had come to similar conclusions. The idea was ripe for picking and we plucked it.

In my life as a serious scientist I study planets and moons in our solar system, usually using spectrographs to sort out the molecular compositions of these complex objects. More recently I have begun to focus on brown dwarfs, those substellar objects lying beyond the solar system that share more in common with planets than with stars. By studying these objects, we are taking the first steps toward expanding planetary science beyond our own solar system. I have always loved this branch of astronomy because I am attracted by the idea of the near and the accessible. I relish the moments of surprise and discovery, the spine-tingling sensation of knowing something that has never been known by anyone before, even if it is a small and arcane bit of knowledge. I have the faith of scientists that truth is piled up grain by grain like the hills of a fire-ant colony.

However, for me, the Heritage project has always been more about beauty than truth. Beauty has its own form of truth, one that transcends barriers of language and education. It reaches closer to our hearts than to our heads. It is the antidote to the intellectualization of the universe that troubled Walt Whitman in his poem on astronomy. As Whitman said so beautifully, sometimes it is okay to leave the darkened lecture hall and simply look up in perfect silence at the stars.

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