Interview by Two Students
I get a lot of email these days from people with all sorts of astronomical questions. Recently, I got an email from a pair of fifth graders at Maret School in Washington D.C. They were participating in a contest called "Seek Out Science" sponsored in part by the local ABC television affiliate Channel 7, GEICO, Chrysler, Giant (a local grocery store), Best Buy, EDS, McDonalds, and the National Science Teachers Association. The purpose of the contest was for middle school students to find a scientist and interview him or her, then write a report based on the interview. The students who emailed me, Nathaniel Abrams and Matthew Thompson, said they found my website and decided to interview me. They sent me questions, and I replied to them. Their subsequent report was picked as being one of the best 50 in the contest, but, alas, they did not win the grand prize (a trip to Monterey California to talk with scientists involved with the JASON project).
Still, the interview was fun for me to do, and a bit flattering of course. With their permission, I am posting their report here for all to see. I think they did a very good job! When I was in fifth grade, computers weighed more than my truck does, and the most complicated machine I knew how to use was the television set. I for one think there is quite a bit of hope for the future.
Two notes: I scanned their report into my computer, and the software is a bit buggy. Any typos are mine, not in the original report. I also hate to mention this, but the report did have one tiny error. I'll flag it below. I also added some links to the text which of course were not in the original report, but may be of interest.
Hubble Space Telescope Astronomer
By Nathaniel Abrams and Matthew Thompson
October 30, 1997
Have you ever wondered what astronomers do? Well, we have too. We were able to find out just what an astronomer does from Dr. Philip Plait. He is an astronomer working on the Hubble Space Telescope project at the Goddard Space Flight Center outside Washington. He is also part of the "Mad Scientists Network" on the internet where he answers questions about astronomy. He publishes several web pages providing information about astronomy and correcting common misconceptions. He believes that if everyone had even a basic grasp of scientific principles, the planet would be a better place. Dr. Plait kindly agreed to answer our questions about his job.
He works full time on the Hubble Telescope. His job is to calibrate the Space Telescope Imaging Spectograph, which he refers to as STIS. STIS is a digital camera on Hubble. This camera takes data from objects in space. The data is fed into a computer, which produces a picture of the object. STIS may send up to one hundred pictures a day back to earth. Dr. Plait analyzes the STIS data on a computer to see how well the camera is working. Computers are essential to his work. Dr. Plait told us that he spends most of his time in front of a computer, not a telescope.
He works as part of a team of scientists and programmers who work with STIS. Most of the time, though, he works on specific problems by himself. When he cannot solve them, he talks with the other members of his team. He says they try to help each other as much as they can. They work in a building called a laboratory, but he said that it is more like an office building with lots of scientists and engineers. He told us that astronomers generally do not do experiments. Instead, they observe objects through telescopes or try to create models with computers.
He helped to analyze the first ever brown dwarf. A brown dwarf is an object that is too small to be a star, but too big to be a planet. He also helped to analyze images and spectra taken of a star that blew up in 1987, called Supernova 1987A. He is looking forward to doing more analysis on other STIS data.
Dr. Plait said that one of his favorite parts of his job is seeing the latest images from space. He finds it very exciting to be one of the first people on earth to see what images are coming in from the Hubble Telescope. The day before we interviewed him, Dr. Plait was one of the first people to see new images from Jupiter. He especially loves seeing pictures coming from space of objects he has seen from his telescope in his back yard. He still owns the ten inch reflecting telescope he bought when he was thirteen years old. He cannot wait until his own daughter is old enough to look through it and see the stars.
Dr. Plait started preparing for a career in astronomy when he was very young. His father, who is an engineer, bought him a small telescope when he was four or five. He says that as soon as he saw Saturn he was hooked on astronomy forever. To learn more about astronomy, he went to the University of Virginia where he received his doctorate degree in astronomy in 1994. His doctoral thesis was on STIS data from the Supernova 1987A. He spent a total of thirteen years in college.
[Note from the Bad Astronomer: This is actually not quite right. I did use Hubble for my doctorate, but STIS was not installed then. I used other instruments for my observations. Like I said in the intro above, a very tiny error!]
While he was at the University of Virginia, he helped teach introductory astronomy classes. For three years he ran a lab at night where students used binoculars and telescopes to observe the sky. That helped him to learn how to communicate difficult astronomical techniques to people unfamiliar with the complicated terminology.
Dr. Plait believes that astronomers contribute to our everyday life in important ways. They help us understand the universe and objects around our planet. Dr. Plait thinks that one of the wonderful things about humans is that they have the capacity to ask why things are the way they are. He finds it very exciting that we now are developing the capacity to find out some of the answers. He says that not a single day goes by that he does not get a sense of wonder that in his own small way he is helping knowledge about the universe to grow.
Dr. Plait also thinks it is important that as many people as possible have as much understanding of science as possible. He says that those who understand science and technology will always have an advantage over those who do not. That is why in addition to his work on the Hubble Telescope, Dr. Plait spends a great deal of his own time providing information and answering questions on the internet. His Bad Astronomy List tries to correct misinformation about astronomy in newspaper and television stories. He believes that as television and movies have become better and better at shaping our views of the world, it is more and more important that people understand what it means to be scientific.
Dr. Plait works hard to spread accurate information and excitement about astronomy and science. We are grateful to him for taking the time to help us understand what he does. We plan to keep following his work on the internet.