HEIDI HAMMEL'S ASTRONOMY FAQ
Heidi B. Hammel with two of her favorite telescopes in the background
Welcome to Heidi B. Hammel's "Frequently Asked Questions" Page at "Dr. Fred's Place." Dr. Fred Bortz is the author of many outstanding books about science and technology for young readers. His biography of planetary astronomer Heidi B. Hammel was published by Scholastic Library Publishing and the Joseph Henry Press of the U. S. National Academy of Sciences in 2005.
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Because Heidi does not always have time to answer every question that people ask her about her life in astronomy, she agreed to let Dr. Fred place her "FAQ" here. It will be updated as needed. The most recent update was posted on January 16, 2006.
These are Heidi's own words and some of the questions are asked by adults. Young readers who want to understand these words better might like to read the biography.
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Advice about Astronomy
(Click on question to go to answer)
General: Where should I go to college (undergraduate) to be an astronomer?
There are actually very few undergraduate institutions that offer astronomy majors. It is really in graduate school that one really learns the astronomy ropes, so (eventually) choosing the right graduate school is much more important than where one goes to college as an undergraduate. Going to an undergraduate institution that is top-ranked in general is likely (but not guaranteed) to get one the best overall basic education. Most astronomers major in physics; some, like myself, majored in earth and planetary science (i.e., geology/geophysics); a few major in other fields like mathematics. I honestly don't know where most of my colleagues did their undergrad work; it just isn't relevant as long as one studies hard and does well. If you really think that you have to pick some particular undergraduate school, there's a list of US and Canadian undergraduate astronomy programs put together by Tom Arny at that might give some suggestions of places to check out.
General: How can a high school student prepare to be an astronomer?
The most important thing someone can do in high school if she hopes to be an astronomer is to make sure she keeps on taking her math and science courses in high school. Computer skills are also critical in today's world. She should also devote a strong effort to communication skills (English, writing, perhaps some kind of performance field like music or drama). Scientists are a dime a dozen today; scientists who can actually communicate effectively are much rarer. And to be completely frank, the sciences in general are a tough field to survive in in today's post-cold-war budget-cutting world, so having excellent communication skills on top of good scientific qualifications is a real plus.
General: What are careers like in astronomy?
In the field of "traditional" astronomy, most people expect to end up working as professors at colleges or universities. Since the number of astronomers has gone up while the number of faculty positions has gone down, it's not a sure bet that a young person will find a stable job. Most are spending years in multiple post-doctoral positions or can only find "soft-money" non-tenure-track jobs (this is what I have: it means my job is never secure, and I have to spend most of my time writing proposals to NASA or the National Science Foundation to bring in enough funding to pay my salary). Nevertheless, there are still a few jobs here and there scattered around the world, and with hard work and luck and a willingness to travel, a motivated young person can succeed in that traditional path. Because the "traditional" path is becoming less practical, many young astronomers are looking into alternative careers. Since astronomers are strongly skilled in computing programming and internet skills, they have market potential in e-business, in the financial world, as programmers, and other types of computer-related jobs. For an idea of the current job market, you can take a quick glance at the American Astronomical Society's Job Register for this month's listings (http://www.aas.org/JobRegister/). This will provide an idea of the types of jobs available, the salaries, and the locations.
General: What type of work is involved in a career in astronomy?
Since astronomy is such a multi-faceted subject, most astronomers find it difficult to describe a typical day. But certainly, a typical day does not include observing with a telescope. That is a misconception, and not how most astronomer hours are spent. Most of the time, an astronomer works at a computer analyzing data or computing models, or travels to attend meetings or make observations. Reviewing other scientists' proposals (for NASA and National Science Foundation programs) and articles (submitted for publication in professional journals) are also part of the daily routine. Many astronomers would say they spend lots of time writing grant proposals.
Most astronomers hold teaching positions at colleges and universities, combining teaching and research. Teaching and preparing for class consume a great deal of time for this type of astronomer and finding time for research is sometimes difficult. Other astronomers work at research institutions. This kind of astronomer can spend up to half of their time carrying out their own programs of research, and the remainder doing things such as developing new instrumentation or supporting archives of data from instruments. Yet other astronomers carve out their own career paths, and this is becoming more common as the traditional careers have been less available. I work for a non-profit organization that has the dual mission of excellence in scientific research and excellence in education and public outreach. So my time is balanced between my research and doing things like this - answering questions from the public about astronomy!
General: Can you recommend any specific activities or groups to me that might help me become a scientist?
In terms of class work, take all the mathematics you can, especially the pre-calculus and calculus course during your senior year if such a thing is offered by your mathematics department. You should take physics and chemistry, although biology is not required for astronomy. You should also take a typing course because astronomers do a lot of work with computers and writing. Also take english and make certain you can write clearly, formulate essays, spell, and logically present an issue based on well-reasoned arguments and evidence. Take computer programming! As for extracurricular activities, do what you like and do it well!
General: What personal, physical, and/or knowledge skills are required?
Each person is different, so there are no "required" personal skills. Physically, there is really not much of a limitation. Look at Stephen Hawking. So much is done with computers now, not only theory but even observation, that physical limitations are becoming less and less a problem. With respect to knowledge, Einsteins are one in a million. The rest of us just work very very hard.
General: What are some advantages and disadvantages of having a career in this field?
The good things about astronomy are too numerous to count. For many of us, it is a pleasure to be studying the universe. The pluses are that you actually get to do this as a JOB!!! You are actually paid -- by your college or by a government contract or grant -- to investigate some very exciting aspects of the universe and the objects in it. You are doing work that is truly fundamental, and contributes to the sum total of human knowledge. Your research papers and findings will live on for hundreds of years after you are gone. You might even get to name a new category of astronomical object, or discover something very remarkable and unexpected. Perhaps a new neighboring galaxy to the Milky Way that was hidden from view until you decided to use some new technology to look for it! During off-times, you can give talks or write books or articles for the layman that express your excitement, and communicate some of the exciting discoveries about the universe.
The down side is that the quality of jobs in astronomy is decreasing as more temporary positions lasting 1-2 years, at low salary, are offsetting the traditional secure, tenured or civil service, positions. Most of us are constantly under stress to find funding. Many young astronomers may get a 'post-doc' after a long hard battle to get a Phd, and then find their careers terminated because there were no openings for them. Even us 'middle-agers' have these stresses, because after 10 or 15 years as active researchers, some of us may find ourselves too expensive for what we do than younger astronomers willing to do nearly the same work at 20 - 30 percent lower salaries, and with less experience. The other stress is the repeated forecasts that the NASA space research budget will be declining by over 30 percent in the next 7 years. For many astronomers, NASA grants are the difference between astronomy as a career and a hobby!
General: How difficult is it to make an important discovery?
"Important" is a fuzzy word. Each new discovery or observation or theory helps us better understand our Universe. That's important, but in some cases the new knowledge can be what we call "incremental." It adds just a little bit of new understanding. For example, someone might have a model of the Universe that says the Universe is getting smaller with time. If your new data show that the Universe is getting smaller faster that the other person thought, that is important. But if your new data show that the Universe is actually getting BIGGER with time, then that is IMPORTANT. See the difference? To do really IMPORTANT work usually requires either being exceedingly brilliant (and remember that 99.999% of us are NOT Einstein), or being clever about which problem you choose and how you choose to solve it - like use a brand new instrument or work on a brand new field.
General: On-line resources about careers in astronomy
Personal: As a high school student, what activities or groups did you get involved in that helped you to become a scientist? Can you recommend any specific ones to me?
When I was involved in the 1994 Comet Crash into Jupiter, the TV station near where I went to high school sent a crew down to Baltimore to interview me. They asked me what was the most important course I took high school. I answered, "Chorus." It taught me to approach everything from a professional point of view - "No amateur-land in Dixie," my choral teacher would always proclaim. That attitude is critical for success. I also took as much as my high school had to offer: physics, calculus, chemistry. I avoided biology, though, since I didn't want to be involved in dissecting things. Just a personal choice. I wasn't involved in any science clubs or things like that. I did music - band, chorus, orchestra, musical theatre. I won the band award my senior year (I played pitched percussion instruments, tympani, chimes, bells, xylophone, etc). As for your own choice of extracurricular activities, do what you like and do it well!
Personal: What inspired you to select this career? What gave you an interest in this career?
It was the most fun of all the things I tried in college. I went to MIT as an undergraduate with absolutely no intention of doing astronomy (I just happened to take a course in astronomy as a sophomore and liked it).
Personal: What obstacles, if any did you have to overcome?
To be the best in a field always requires a lot of hard work. There are also still misperceptions that women don't do science, so one is always educating people about that. Girls especially seem to blame themselves if things go wrong (if they fail a test, or don't win a contest), and it takes a long time and plenty of self-coaching to get over that spurious limitation. On a strictly personal level, I had a high-school science teacher who wouldn't write me a letter of recommendation to MIT ("you'll never get in") and who, when I was accepted at MIT using recommendations from other teachers, told me "it's only because you're a woman, they have quotas to fill." I also had to overcome the fact that I really was bad at physics, and failed a lot of exams in college. The only way to deal with that was to just buckle down, study harder, and pass the course. "C" is a passing grade.
Personal: Could you tell me about your other hobbies or interests?
I have two cats: Jessie and Peanut. Music has always been important to me: I'm a trained pitched percussionist, trained pianist, self-taught guitar player. I've studied German, taking evening classes at The Goethe Institut (Boston, MA) and through an adult education program (Ridgefield, CT), in addition to several years in high school. I like reading: science fiction; anything by Jane Austen or Madeleine L'Engle, romance novels, and other books.
Personal: How do you balance career and family responsibilities?
Right now my biggest job is being a mom. I have a daughter who was born in 1997 and two sons who were born in 1999 and 2001. Picking the right husband, and making it clear from the beginning that my career is as important as his, has made it possible to balance work and family successfully. Finding quality daycare is critical, too. It is worth spending a lot of time doing your homework (examining your daycare options, visiting places and people, really deciding what is important to your for your child) so that you're comfortable with your childcare choice.
Personal: Have you had this career your entire life or has it been difficult to find a steady job?
These are two different questions. The answer to the first is yes and the answer to the second is yes. In the field of "traditional" astronomy, most people expect to end up working as professors at colleges or universities. Since the number of astronomers has gone up while the number of faculty positions has gone down, it's not a sure bet that a young person will find a stable job. Most are spending years in multiple post-doctoral positions or can only find "soft-money" non-tenure-track jobs (this is what I have: it means my job is never secure, and I have to spend most of my time writing proposals to NASA or the National Science Foundation to bring in enough funding to pay my salary). Nevertheless, there are still a few jobs here and there scattered around the world, and with hard work and luck and a willingness to travel, a motivated young person can succeed in that traditional path. Because the "traditional" path is becoming less practical, many young astronomers are looking into alternative careers. Since astronomers are strongly skilled in computing programming and internet skills, they have market potential in e-business, in the financial world, as programmers, and other types of computer-related jobs. For an idea of the current job market, you can take a quick glance at the American Astronomical Society's Job Register for this month's listings. This will provide an idea of the types of jobs available, the salaries, and the locations.
Personal: What type of discoveries have you made?
In 1994, I discovered that the biggest cloud feature that the Voyager spacecraft discovered on the planet Neptune in 1989 -- the Great Dark Spot -- had disappeared! I used the Hubble Space Telescope to make this discovery. I have also discovered many more interesting facts about Neptune, like how fast its winds blow and where most of the storm systems are likely to be seen. I have also been a participant in groups that have made major discoveries. In 1994, I led a team of scientists that used the Hubble Space Telescope to watch as a comet (named Shoemaker-Levy 9) crashed into Jupiter. We discovered that it made a huge effect on the planet, from big black spots, to vast plumes of ejected material, to waves rippling through the atmosphere. I have also participated on a team that recently discovered that Neptune's moon Triton has been getting warmer over the past decade, though we are not sure yet why.
Personal: Do you get bored studying the same planet for so long?
One reason that I like studying Uranus and Neptune is that they are changing a lot, and changing on timescales that we humans can actually see. A typical galaxy right now looks pretty much like it did thousands of years ago, and pretty much like it will thousands of years hence. Planets, on the other hand, rotate on hourly timescales, their clouds form and dissipate on timescales from hours to months to years, and their seasons are measured in years, not millennia. Basically, every time I go to a telescope, I never know exactly what I am going to see, and I find that to be pretty exciting!
Personal: Do you want to go in space?
If space travel ever became as routine and comfortable as airplane travel, then I might consider it. But not until then.
Personal: What kind of scientist are you; what is your title?
I am an astronomer, and more specifically a Planetary Astronomer or
Planetary Scientist. My business card says "Senior Research Scientist."
Personal: What did you want to be in the 6th Grade?
When I was in sixth grade, I had absolutely no idea what
I wanted to do. I liked reading books (Madeleine L'Engle
was--still is--one of my favorite authors). I also liked playing
piano, climbing trees, cats, building things with Legos, and playing
games like Monopoly and Scrabble.
Personal: Did you always want to study space?
Actually, I only got really interested in studying when
I was in college. But there are two things that I remember from
when I was a kid that probably contributed to my later interest
in astronomy. One is that I used to get car sick, and my parents
used to take us on trips a lot in the car and so I had to lie
on the back seat being sick, and the only thing I could do was
look out the window and see the stars. And so I learned the
constellations, I learned what the bright stars were, and so
that's what kept me going on those long car trips. And the
second thing I remember, when I was a kid, is going to a
planetarium. They would do a star show about what the stars
looked like and what constellations were visible that night.
That was all kind of boring, but at some point during the show
a "comet" would streak across the sky with flames and a roar
that was really loud, and you never knew when it was going to
happen, and that was really exciting. And I would go back to
the planetarium again and again and again just to wait for
that comet to come. I think I probably picked up a little astronomy
along the way when I was doing that.
P.S. I have learned since then that comets are actually giant balls of ice that usually move very slowly and very silently across the sky.
Personal: I have to dress up like you to present my book report. Do you have any suggestions?
Here's a fun idea: How about dressing up like me when I
am in Hawaii at the telescope? I wear just regular clothes
(jeans, shirt) BUT I also wear a parka, hat, mittens (scarf, etc)!
Most people think Hawaii = hot (beaches, surfing, bathing suits);
but for astronomers, Hawaii is the very top of an extremely high
mountain, and at that high altitude it is COLD at night, even in
the middle of the summer! And no sunglasses, either, since we
are working at night! It's also good to dress like a
"normal person" because a lot of people think scientists always wear
white lab coats and have hair like Einstein and need big thick glasses.
Geeky. None of that is true, except for dress up and fake
characters in movies. In other words, those are stereotypes.
Those are two points you can make about why your "dressing up"
like me would not need a particularly flashy or special outfit.
Science: Why does Uranus spin on its side?
Scientists theorize that a very large object smashed into this planet a long time ago, while Uranus was still forming. The impact was so powerful that it knocked Uranus over, completely changing the direction of its spin.
Science: Is there life on Uranus?
The pressures and temperatures on Uranus are too different from that of Earth's surface to support life as we know it. As to whether there is life that is completely different from life as we know it, the only way we'll ever know it to go there and study the planet in great detail.
Science: Will humans ever land on Uranus?
Humans will never land on Uranus because we could not land at all! Uranus has a very large thick atmosphere. There is ice in the atmosphere and this probably becomes slush and solid ice near the "surface" of Uranus, if you want to call the topmost level of the solid inner core a "surface". But as you near this "surface", the pressure of the gas and other material above you would be so high that it would flatten a spaceship before it could land. If people ever went to explore Uranus (or any other giant planet), they would set up a base on one of the moons, where the temperatures and pressures are more hospitable.
Science: What's all this about seasonal variations on Neptune? What is new here? Is this important, and if so, why so?
In May 2003, Larry Sromovsky published a paper in the planetary science journal Icarus. The new data in the paper is brightnesses from Hubble Space Telescope blue images (both Larry's and mine). Larry shows that these brightnesses track very nicely the brightnesses seen in ground-based observations of Wes Lockwood (Lowell Observatory). Since Wes's data extend back for thirty years, his observations can be used to look for longer-term effects, like seasonal change.
Larry fit a sinusoidal function with an arbitrary phase shift to Wes's 30 years of data. Note that is no physics in the curve, it is just a mathematical construct that fits. Since we only have seen a part of the 164-year-long Neptune year, it is not too hard to find a sine curve that fits. Another way of putting this is that Wes's ground-based data corresponds to only about 2 Neptune "months" of data (Larry's and my Hubble data corresponds to less than 3 Neptune "weeks"). Most of us would be leery of making statement about Earth's weather based on the clouds we see in just October and November.
There are two more issues worth noting. First there are data that do not fit this seasonal curve. The data are from 1950s, and thus of real significance for this issue, since they extend the seasonal coverage. Wes and his colleagues have studied the calibration of this data in some detail, and have not yet found any solid source of error. However, even if the older data *are* correct, and a PURE link to seasonal change is ruled out, it is quite possible that there is a COMPONENT of seasonal variability. That's why the results are so tantalizing.
Second, none of us have been granted Hubble time in the upcoming cycle, and NASA has turned down Wes's request for funding to continue his long-term observations. Thus, not only do the data from the past not fit this model, we won't have HST data in the (near) future to confirm it. Wes is planning to try to continue his ground-based efforts in spite of the lack of funding, and we have applied for Keck time (though we haven't found out yet if it has been approved). The Keck time cannot address seasonal change, because Keck images are near-infrared data and this seasonal effect is in the blue. But Keck observations can at least give us some insight into how the planet's cloud activity is changing with time.
One thing we know for sure is that Neptune's atmosphere is remarkably dynamic. Should seasonal variations be verified by future observations or by reanalysis of past observations, that will send the atmospheric dynamicists into a tizzy trying to explain how it could possibly be. Right now, though, this interpretation is tantalizing but not iron-clad. Our studies of Uranus are also hinting at seasonal change, and we are eagerly tracking that planet's cloud activity as it nears its 2007 equinox. Since Larry's seasonal model predicts a peak in Neptune's brightness in 2020, the next few decades could be banner years for revealing the true natures of the radiation balances in these distant giant planets, providing we get telescope time and funding to observe them.
P.S. Maybe I am misreading Larry's diagram, but since equinox was in late 1960s and since the sub-solar point has been heading south since then, I'd call this Autumn on Neptune (reflecting my bias as an inhabitant of the northern hemisphere on Earth). Neptune's winter solstice is in middle of this decade (coincidentally about the same time as Uranus's equinox).
Science: Why do Neptune and Uranus seem to have such dynamic atmospheres even though they receive so little sunlight?
Beats me. This is why we have dynamicists. But look - the dynamicists were surprised by the Voyager results showing a highly dynamic atmosphere on Neptune, EVEN THOUGH ground-based images had been showing remarkable cloud activity for years prior to the fly-by. So it doesn't surprise me that they are confounded by the idea of seasonal variations on these distant giants. We just don't understand these atmospheres yet.
Science: Is there a trend that Uranus, closer to the sun than Neptune, is more dynamic than Neptune?
Rather the reverse, actually. We do know that Neptune has a lot more internal energy than Uranus (but no, we don't know why), which is an arm-waving reason for its atmosphere to be more active. Perhaps Uranus' lack of internal energy is related to the event in Uranus' distant past that caused its axial tilt to be an extreme 98 degrees. Since we have not yet seen even one Uranian equinox yet with modern detectors and telescopes, we honestly cannot say for sure how that planet behaves as a function of season. It may turn out to be quite active. It might not.
Science: Are the variations in Uranus on a shorter time scale than those of Neptune, since Uranus takes a shorter time to orbit the sun?
One problem we are having with BOTH Uranus and Neptune is the long timescales involved here. The "shorter" season for Uranus is "only" about two decades (!), as opposed to Neptune's four decades. Both of these are HUGELY long timescales in the context of astronomical equipment, telescopic capability, computational power, and (perhaps most frustrating for us right now) research funding cycles.
Science: What ever happened to Neptune's Great Dark Spot, the one discovered by Voyager?
It went away before HST could come online. Voyager data indicated that it was drifting toward the equator and would probably cross the equator only a few years after Voyager, and would probably not survive that. That seems to be what happened. Since 1994 (when the refurbished Hubble Space Telescope came on-line), there have been other Great Dark Spots seen by HST in Neptune's *northern* hemisphere, but none for the past five years or so, though.
Text copyright 2003-6 by Alfred B. Bortz and Heidi B. Hammel, all rights reserved
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