Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Positive Reinforcement

I feel like I've been awfully glum in some of my recent posts, so perhaps it's time to look at the bright side of things. Maybe it's just because it feels like spring is right around the corner, but I've been feeling a little more hopeful lately.

One of the things I've been thinking about is what brought me to astronomy to begin with? For me, it wasn't some kind of a lifelong dream. I never gazed at the stars much as a child: living in the suburbs of large city made that difficult. In fact, I never really knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. When I was in 8th grade, I got inducted into some honor society, so the principal interviewed all us inductees and asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. I thought for a bit, and replied, "Happy."

I was always good at math and science, so by high school I had narrowed my choices down to science. I spent most of my college years torn between physics and biology. My senior year, I took both an introductory astrophysics class and an advanced biochemistry class. One day, in my astro class, we were going over galaxy classifications and I naively asked the professor, "okay, but how do those galaxies form?" "We don't know," he said, and smiled at my bemusement.

This was something of an epiphany. The universe was filled with these enormous objects, and we didn't know how they get there. How do stars form? We don't know. How do planets form? We don't know. This was a huge change from all my physics classes up to this point. In virtually every other topic, there was an established answer, whether it was electromagnetism or quantum or relativity. In astronomy, I saw the possibility of doing unique, creative research. And you know what? To large extent, I am now doing unique and creative research.

What brought you into your field?


Mrs. CH said...

Interesting! I got interested in a very similar way. It was in my grade 12 physics class, and the teacher was very into astronomy. So, instead of doing boring, old, physics demos (you know, ball on a plane and all that sort of thing) he would use examples from astronomy.

One moment has really stuck in my mind: we were looking at gas discharge tubes with spectrographs, and he told us that if you look at stars with a spectrograph that you can tell what it's made out of.

I couldn't believe it - here are these giant balls of hot gas, light-years away, but we could find out all sorts of things from our very own planet. Definitely cool (and funny enough, both my MSc and PhD projects include spectral data - X-ray binary for my MSc, and comets for my PhD!).

aimee said...

What a good idea not to forget our original motivating forces. How I became interested in Astronomy was ....

I was surrounded by family members in service professions - a nurse, a minister, a social worker. I loved science but the only living examples I had for scientific professions were a few uncles who were engineers. I studied engineering at first in college. When I was hired by Los Alamos National Lab for a summer research job, I couldn't believe that some people did research for a living. It seemed like such a luxury! How much fun!

So I steered my career towards physics. Then lo and behold - astronomy was even more fun than other sub-disciplines in physics. I still think it's fun.