Thursday, December 5, 2013

Astronomer of the Month - Benjamin Weiner

Each month we will highlight a member of the CANDELS team by presenting an interview introducing them and what it's like to be an astronomer. This month's Astronomer is Benjamin Weiner.

Benjamin Weiner at Las Campanas in Chile
Tell us a little about yourself!

My name is Benjamin Weiner.  I'm an Associate Astronomer (research scientist) at Steward Observatory, which is the Department of Astronomy at the University of Arizona, and operates several mountaintop observatories. I was born in California but grew up in Pittsburgh.  I went to Swarthmore College, took a couple of years off, then got a PhD in physics/astronomy from Rutgers. I have lived in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey, California (both halves), Maryland and Arizona. Away from work I like to spend time hiking, running, and riding my bike.

What is your specific area of research? What is your role within the CANDELS team? 

I work on several different projects -- the one most closely related to CANDELS is the nature and properties of star-forming galaxies at redshifts 1-2, 7-10 billion year ago, essentially adolescent galaxies. By "nature" I mean we try to figure out what is the amount of gas and stars in these galaxies, how fast are they forming stars, what are the velocities of the gas - are they rotating like the Milky Way disk or more chaotic. I also study the winds (gas outflows) driven by galaxies and the link between galaxies and the circumgalactic gas probed by quasar absorption lines.  And the properties of dwarf satellites of low-redshift present-day galaxies.  I have also built instrumentation for ground-based telescopes, and software for reducing data.

Within CANDELS my role is to lead the data reduction and science efforts from the grism spectroscopy observations that we do with Hubble. The main goal of these observations is to get spectra of distant supernovae and their host galaxies, but we also get spectra of other galaxies in the same field.

What made you want to become an astronomer? At what age did you know you were interested in astronomy? 

I was interested in astronomy as a grade-schooler, although since I grew up in a city, didn't really get a good look at the night sky very often unless we went out of town -- I have a distinct memory of being wowed by a clear night sky with many stars when I was about 16, from a small town in Pennsylvania. I remember borrowing a small telescope from my high school physics teacher, and us trying to photograph a partial eclipse. Also of the Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Sciences summer school taking us to the Allegheny Observatory where we got to look at Saturn through a pretty big telescope. Even with pictures from space probes, there is no substitute for seeing the thing directly. However, I did physics in college, not astronomy, and didn't really seriously consider astronomy until my first year in grad school, when I was less motivated by the physics classes. My friend Julianne  suggested, "You should try astronomy, it's more interesting and easier." So I did.

What obstacles have you encountered on your path to becoming an astronomer and how did you overcome them? 

When I started really doing research, rather than taking classes and doing homework, I worried about having to create my own new projects and problems to work on. It turns out that wasn't so hard. It's much harder to manage all of the projects and to know when to declare one "good enough," finish it, and move on.
Who has been your biggest scientific role model and why? 

I have never really identified people as role models, but one of the astronomers I learned the most from, just from informal talking, is Steve Shectman. I admire Vera Rubin's persistence and enthusiasm, George Preston's humor, and Jim Peebles's graciousness to younger people.

What is it like to be an astronomer? What is your favorite aspect? 

My favorite aspect is that we get to engage our curiosity, and that we have to confront whatever it is that the universe has decided should be physical fact. We can try to construct ideas or test certain theories, and sometimes they're right, but often nature just doesn't work the way we expect or throws us a surprise.

My less favorite aspect -- aside from the office politics that go with any job -- is that for a discipline that grew from staring at the sky, we spend an awful lot of time inside, under artificial lights.

What motivates you in your research? 

I like the challenge of figuring out original ways to design observations or studies to understand astronomical objects or test models. We can't do traditional lab-style  "experiments" in astronomy since everything is far away, so you have to measure effects with what nature allows you to detect. And sometimes a clever observational design means you don't need the biggest telescope or the most resources.

What is your favorite astronomical facility? (This could include telescopes or super computers, for example) 

Benjamin Weiner walking up to the Magellan Telescopes
at Las Campanas in Chile.
I like going to the telescope, which for me is the most romantic, and also most scenically beautiful, part of doing astronomy. It's hard to pick one favorite, but some of mine are the observatories at Las Campanas in Chile, the VLA in New Mexico, and the MMT on Mount Hopkins here in Arizona. I would really like to visit Antarctica someday but don't currently work in the areas of astronomy that would get me there.

Where do you see yourself in the future? What are your career aspirations? 

Right now I'm mostly doing research on relatively short-term projects, but I would like to do more teaching or outreach and work on a longer term project, possibly a telescope or a survey. Both of those are planning to build things for the future, more so than hopping from one project and grant proposal to the next.
If you could have any astronomy related wish, what would it be? 

I'd like to be able to see up close and in detail some of the things we study -- a supermassive black hole's accretion region, or a distant galaxy, who wouldn't?  But astronomy is not just a collection of objects, but a system of knowledge created by people, and if I could have one wish it would be that those people behave more decently to each other.

If I could have a second wish it would be that our society would value education, research, and knowledge more highly.
What is your favorite, most mind-boggling astronomy fact? 
That we can deduce anything at all about the nature and physics of stars, gas, dust, galaxies -- even planets around other stars -- that are so far away and that we'll never be able to touch or see in any more detail. Much of what I do is spectroscopy, and it's always hard to explain because it doesn't make pretty pictures. In 1859, Kirchhoff and Bunsen used the then-new spectrograph to show that the Sun was made of the same elements that exist on Earth. It both blows my mind that we can know that, and that we've only known it for 150 years.

Is there anything else you would like for the public to know about you or astronomy in general? 

I wish we could better communicate how science is imperfect, but generally correct or workable, especially in the long run. I think the popular conception of science is too biased toward lone geniuses making huge discoveries and overturning all of what was known before. In reality we make much slower progress, and "scientific revolutions" are based on a slow accumulation of facts and ideas that gradually build a new consensus. Even Einstein was no Einstein; he built on the work of people before him and discussed many ideas with his contemporaries.

Science doesn't know or predict everything, but the consensus is usually pretty damn reliable, especially for well studied subjects. You have to understand that science can be imperfect and largely reliable at the same time, otherwise you fall prey to hucksters claiming that scientists have got it all wrong and are covering it up. Anti-evolutionists, quack medicine scammers, and climate change denialists use these arguments, which are based on misrepresenting how science is an imperfect process that nevertheless produces useful results.

I'm concerned that an easily distracted culture that values only short term returns isn't supporting the resources and education we need to build a long-lasting healthy society.  For example, the Pennsylvania Governor's School that I mentioned going to many years back, was cancelled several years ago due to state budget cuts. It was just revived through heroic fundraising and donation efforts by some dedicated alumni. But that's not a long term solution.  The society at large, through the state, needs to make it a priority to have an educated population, to value the work of teachers and people who create knowledge. Education takes people and facilities and you just can't build a stable program by cheaping out or depending on charity every year.

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