Why a career in astronomy?
My mother claims that when I was 5 years old, we were walking down the street and I said, “Mommy, how are stars born?” When I was in ninth grade, I went to a career counselor, and she said, “You can’t become an astronomer because your eyesight isn’t good enough.” So I decided I’m just going to go into physics, which is the next-best thing. That turned out to be a perfectly lovely way to become an astronomer. In my fourth year, I did an astronomical thesis. I indicated I really would like to do more of that, and they said, “Go right ahead. There are blind astronomers.”
You’ve traveled to the stratosphere as part of a NASA research mission. What other milestones are you targeting?
It would be nice to have telescopes that are strong enough to see the very first stars formed. That would be what I would put on my wish list.
What is the biggest misconception about scientists?
The one that we come up against most often is the expression “it’s just a theory.” In terms of science lingo, theory is the cream of the crop, as good as it gets. We have multiple pieces of evidence that support that idea. If it’s an idea that’s kind of wishy-washy and not fully tested, we say it’s a hypothesis. But to say, “Oh, it’s just a theory, I reject that,” is contrary to scientific thinking.
What about political debates over scientific funding or findings?
I think it’s healthy to have conversations about why we spend money the way we do. I wish we spoke about it as a society more: Does it make sense to put our money toward science that improves our lives and improves health and has often-tangible outcomes? In terms of political issues, sometimes people engage in arguments without always understanding the data. For example, should we vaccinate people against measles? These are conversations we should have, but I would like to see more people equipped with the understanding of how vaccinations work to have more meaningful conversations.
How can average people boost their scientific knowledge here in Milwaukee?
The New York Times has a very good Tuesday section on science. Scientific American is a good magazine. Frankly, for some people, reading your child’s fifth-grade textbook is a good place to start, just to get more of that vocabulary, more of those ideas. Sometimes people treat science like some kind of story. I’ll tell you the story, you’ll nod and smile, and you’ll repeat the story, and that’s all. You need to understand a bit of the story, otherwise you could believe me or any other person if you have no basis to judge whether the story is plausible or not.
Can science save us in the long run, or are we doomed?
I’m an optimist by nature, so nobody’s doomed as far as I’m concerned. My hope is that people are attentive to our environment. One of the advantages of being an astronomer is, you get the big picture and realize our planet is a very lovely, special place. And it is possible for us to screw it up. So I think we are mindful that we should make sure our planet is taken care of. We do not have a good place for us to pack our bags and go live somewhere else.