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The Path Forward
a_scorpii
Astronomy is unique among the sciences.  It is perhaps the oldest science, playing an integral role in the cultures of ancient civilizations.  Today, just as it has been through human history, astronomy is the science that is most relevant to our lives, the most accessible to us.  We can perhaps not be aware of how levers work, that when you heat water it vaporizes, or how plants would die if you deprive them of water, but we will always be aware of the blazing Sun in the afternoon and the starry sky at night, punctuated every evening by a beautiful sunset. 

Accessibility means that even today, the ordinary layperson can in fact be crucial to advances in astronomy.  You don't need a billion-dollar particle accelerator that spans the border of two countries, or a strange-looking machine which you put something into and display some squiggly lines on a screen.  You can easily get a telescope in your backyard for less than $1k, but that is not even necessary.  To be an amateur astronomer, you would need just your eyes. 

In 2010, an amateur discovered a storm in the Northern Hemisphere of Saturn, and only after that were there observations by the Cassini spacecraft.  Also in 2010, a British amateur captured the breakup of the icy nucleus of comet C2007 C3 as it approached the Sun.  Another British amateur Tom Boles holds the record for discovering more than 120 supernovas. 

Then what does a professional astronomer do?  Many amateurs are in fact very informed in the field, perhaps the only difference is that they are not full-time.  Are professional astronomers merely people who are paid to periodically publish journal papers and once in a while lob a telescope into space?  Perhaps I am putting down the professional astronomers - there are certainly large fields, such as X-ray astronomy,  that are generally inaccessible to amateurs. 

My Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) project saw me working on Cassini data under Andrew Ingersoll and Shawn Ewald.  Certainly I learnt a lot about atmospheric dynamics and IDL (I still find it a sloppy language), but what is most interesting is that I saw the breadth of options open to a Physics graduate who wishes to go into academics (of course there is always finance, or the dark side as the joke goes).  Andy is perhaps the stereotypical professor leading various teams working in different research areas, and collaborating with other professors like himself from other universities to contribute various instruments for spacecraft.  Shawn, however, seemed more like a programmer.  In fact I was surprised at first when I found out he was also Physics trained.  His role is simply to process the data from the spacecraft, and pass it on to the various research teams.  He hardly does any theoretical studies or attempt to interpret the data he handles. 

I often like to cite Michael Malin as another person whom I would not have guessed to be a Physics graduate.  He graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in Physics, and came to Caltech to get a PhD in Geology and Planetary Sciences.  After 11 years of teaching at Arizona State University, he set up his own Malin Space Science Systems devoted to building camera systems for spacecraft.  Notable contributions include the Color Imager on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars Science Laboratory Mastcam, and the Mars Orbiter Camera on the now lost Mars Global Surveyor.  It would seem that he has a stable job after getting his professorship at Arizona State University, but he left that job to enter industry.  Perhaps he felt he could accomplish much more with more funds available outside the university?  It would be interesting to find out. 

Which brings me to the latest assignment we have for Ay20.  I look forward to all the interviews with various people, and have my eyes opened to the options that lay before me. 

On a somewhat related note, I once again realize that I know next to nothing about building stuff.  I took part in Caltech Space Challenge, and was exposed to the design process which seemed so natural to the engineers present there.  I thought perhaps the reason why I was kinda clueless was that I was the most junior there.  Last Friday I held a meeting for a rover building competition, and I had to ask someone next to me what CAD stands for.  And this time, most of the engineers in the room were freshmen. 

Being able to build an instrument and then fly it in space would be really cool, but looks like I have a long long way to go. 

And for all the other scientists out there who are as ignorant as I was, CAD stands for computer aided design.  I still don't know how the process work though. 

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I'm glad you did ask what CAD is! Engineering, like any science, can be intimidating due to its jargon. It's such an important skill to be able to ask about words you don't recognize or understand - this will take you a long way.

Amateur astronomers can be very very impressive! Did you check out the web site of Robert Vanderbei (in the "Links" section of the class web site)? He is a professor of operations research who is also an amateur astronomer, and does really incredible things!

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