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.
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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