Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Everything is Useful

This week’s guest blogger is Sethanne Howard, an astronomer who has held positions with U.S. national observatories, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Navy. She was also Chief of the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office, 2000-2003. Her research specialty is galactic dynamics. She has also been active in science education, especially concentrating on the history of women in science.


There are many paths to becoming an astronomer, almost as many as there are astronomers.  My path was a squiggle of overlapping tracks.

Like many astronomers I knew what I wanted to be from age 5.  I read the Little Golden Book on Stars. There were a series of little golden books on the natural world, one on rocks and minerals, one on flowers, one on insects, birds, etc. The one on stars was divided into two parts. Part two was easy to understand. It consisted of a page per constellation with a drawing of the constellation at the top and a description at the bottom. My 5 year old mind could understand pictures in the sky. Part one was more difficult. It was text describing the science of astronomy. I read it carefully not quite understanding everything until I got to a page on how stars evolve. There was this graph on the page. [Graphs are not part of a 5 year old’s concepts.] There were big white-blue stars at the top left, smaller yellow stars in the middle and even smaller red stars at the bottom right.  Obviously (to my 5 year old mind) stars rolled down the line as they aged, changing color as they rolled.  Well, the words at the bottom of the page did not agree with this. So I was puzzled, and this puzzlement stayed with me until I figured out the H-R diagram many years later.  The puzzlement kept me interested in astronomy.  I kept returning to that page year after year until I could understand it.


In high school I took four years of science and math – that was possible back in the 1950s.  I was lucky to be a lab assistant for many science classes.  Against my parents’ wishes I majored in physics in college.  I was the first woman to receive a B.S. degree in physics from the University of California at Davis.  There were a few problems. My fellow students would not study with a (shock) girl!  One of my professors told me that it was not a total waste of their time to teach me physics because then I could teach my children math.  Piffle.  I ignored him.  I never had a gender problem again.  Not deterred because of this comment, after graduation I applied to become an astronomical assistant (not the same thing as a night assistant) at Lick Observatory.  I spent two years at Lick learning the trade skills of an observational astronomer. The position was for two years max, and then the person was expected to go to graduate school.  It was a wonderful time.  Such jobs are no longer available in our field.  My mentor let me work on many different projects (from Seyferts to the Orion Nebula) and included my name in the publications.  One of the projects was calculating the rotational temperature of Jupiter.

Then I took a turn to the east. I went to Rensselear Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, NY.  They did not have a PhD program in astronomy at that time, so I picked up an M.S. degree in nuclear physics.  For my master’s thesis I measured the total neutron cross section of U238.  One can never tell what will be useful in the future.  And it meant I had a thorough grounding in physics.

While at RPI I worked with colleagues measuring the absolute energy distribution of Oke spectrophotometric standard stars (gaining an appreciation for the fundamentals of astronomy). Wherever I was located I engaged in education and public outreach.  I figured it was part of being an astronomer. So while I was a grad student at RPI I taught AP physics at a local high school. I also taught sections of Harvard Project Physics to high school teachers.

Another bounce back west.  I moved to Tucson and worked for seven years at Kitt Peak National Observatory in the planetary group.  They hired me because of the work on Jupiter I had done at Lick.  Who knew that such a small project would be useful in the future?  While at KPNO I was privileged to join the AAS as a full member because even though I did not have a PhD I had published peer reviewed papers.   

I “left” astronomy and entered Government service working for the US Navy as an oceanographer/meteorologist doing ship routing in Monterey, California.  Why did they hire me?  No one else applied who understood spherical trig!  The Earth is a sphere (sort-of), and ships travel on great circles.  I was the only applicant who knew what that meant.  Astronomers have a plethora of useful skills.  I stayed there three years honing my computer skills with some of the best in the business.  They even let me take courses at the Naval Postgraduate School.  Monterey is near Santa Cruz so Bob Kraft gave me an unpaid position in the astronomy group at UCSC that allowed me to use the observing facilities.  I enjoyed the work but the Navy portion included 24/7 responsibility for ships at sea. 

I needed a break so I bounced back east to Atlanta where I worked for DCAA (Defense Contract Audit Agency) as a computer specialist teaching the Government auditors throughout the southeastern US how to run their new portable computers.  Again, applying useful skills learned in astronomy.  However working for a living is not nearly as much fun as astronomy.

It turned out that Georgia State University (in Atlanta) was starting a new PhD program in astrophysics. This was a stroke of luck for me because they were willing to gamble on a middle-aged (43) woman with an astronomy background.  And so I came back to astronomy in 1985 to complete a PhD.  I figured I had served my time observing through long cold nights, so I decided to do a theoretical dissertation (dynamics of interacting galaxies) completing it in 1989.  Even though I was much older than my fellow graduate students we all became great friends, lasting even today.  Because I had a completed master’s degree I was allowed to teach astronomy courses at Georgia State and Emory University.  I was also fortunate that my adviser found a wonderful mentor, Gene Byrd (University of Alabama), for my dissertation work.  I spent a lot of time on the road between Atlanta and Tuscaloosa.  And I retain a connection with colleagues there.

After completing the PhD I applied to many places.  My master’s work (that uranium study) was a key point in getting a post doc at Los Alamos (LANL), and I moved into the high energy end of our field.  I won two LANL awards for education/outreach. With a post-doc under my belt, I went back east to NASA Huntsville where my database skills learned at LANL helped with my task on the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory.  I also visited every 3rd grade class in Huntsville talking about the wonders of astronomy.

A few years later I was seduced away by a salary hike to come to NASA Headquarters (not as a civil servant) in Washington, DC.  Part of my time there was spent in the planetary division (due to all those years at Kitt Peak).  The rest was spent in Mission Operations and Data Analysis (MO&DA). However, I quickly learned that high level management with its pressures and infighting is not my thing.  I left NASA HQ to go to NSF as Program Officer for the Extragalactic and Cosmology Program (those interacting galaxies that I kept playing with).

Along the way, all through the years I kept applying to universities and kept being told that I did not have a broad enough background. (?)  Most strange. 

I finally returned to the Navy as Chief of the Nautical Almanac Office at the US Naval Observatory in Washington, DC.  That is where The Astronomical Almanac and other standard books are produced.  I retired from there.

It was a bouncing journey from pre-school to retirement.  I never deviated too far from something to do with astronomy.  But I remain grateful for all the other things I learned along the way.

If asked for advice I would say that everything you learn will be of use somehow or somewhen. 

Don’t narrow your view too much.  Remember that astronomers (especially classically trained ones) are trained in a wide variety of skills that are of use in many other disciplines and jobs. 

Despite my two degrees in physics I know that astronomy is its own honorable and independent discipline – it is not a subset of physics.  It is filled with wonder as we all know.  And the more you learn, the more opportunities will come your way.