Monday, October 15, 2012

Meet Steve Rodney

From time to time we'll bring you a biographical post introducing one of the astronomers writing for the CANDELS blog.  This week, we introduce Steve Rodney.  You can find his earlier posts here.

View of Hanauma Bay on Oahu.
Currently I'm a postdoctoral researcher and a Hubble fellow at the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in Baltimore, Maryland. Before landing here on the shores of the Chesapeake, I was a graduate student at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy. Several of my classmates from Hawaii are also part of the CANDELS team: Dale Kocevski, Liz McGrath, and Jeyhan Kartaltepe were all Hawaii grad students while I was there. We're now scattered across the country, but team meetings give us the occasional opportunity to reminisce about shave ice, moonlight surfing, and Andy's sandwich shop

Me and the kids in Baltimore.
JHU is a great place to be, and I am very lucky to be working here with some fantastic people… but unfortunately living in Baltimore is a source of some significant environmental stress for me. Not because of the drugs and crime of Baltimore (excellent dramatizations notwithstanding, Baltimore is actually a great city to live in). No, I'm referring to the deep emotional trauma that comes from growing up a fan of the hapless Cleveland Browns, and now watching my 4-year old daughter wearing her Ravens jersey to pre-school. (If you're not an NFL fan, then think of the Ravens vs Browns as Manchester United vs Liverpool, but imagine Liverpool is hopelessly inept over many decades. If you're not a soccer fan either, then... well, nevermind). I can only hope that my daughter will eventually outgrow this phase of moral depravity.

One of the conversations that will come up for most any astronomer from time to time is the discussion of "Why astronomy?" Sometimes this is about personal choices: "Why did you choose to become an astronomer instead of a chemist or a doctor?" For myself, astronomy has always been a study that I was drawn to because of the stories. As a kid, I read the legends of Greek mythology, and was fascinated to find them echoed on the sky in the constellations. I loved to trace the stories of ancient heroes, gods and monsters that were painted across the heavens. Later, the study of physics opened up for me the fascinating stories within the stars, from the birth of a star incubated in a dusty envelope of gas, to the fragile beauty of stellar death throes. Studying astronomy takes these wonderful images and unfolds them to reveal the complex puzzles and deep mysteries of the universe. For me personally, this was the hook that drew me in. 

Cherry blossoms and the Jefferson
Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Sometimes the "why astronomy" question is framed more broadly: "OK, maybe astronomy is great for you, but what practical use does it serve in our society?" A glance at recent Nobel Prizes can illustrate this very legitimate question. Astronomers won a Nobel prize in 2011 for discovering Dark Energy. Exotic and fascinating, but also intangible and wholly disconnected from everyday human lives. In contrast, the recently announced 2012 Nobel prize in chemistry recognizes advances in the understanding of G-protein-coupled receptors (GCPRs). This work is fundamentally connected to drugs used in the treatment of a wide range of ailments, from common allergies and high blood pressure to breast cancer and schizophrenia. One might look at these two fields and legitimately question whether we as a society should be investing so much (both in dollars and in human capital) in the study of distant stars, when there are real problems with real people that can be addressed with other avenues of scientific exploration. 

I think this is an important question, and a conversation that we astronomers and fans of astronomy should have more often and more publicly. Especially in a time of tight budgets for research funding and significant skepticism about the value of science in general, we all should have a coherent argument for why basic research is important. For me, the answer is that the pursuit of understanding is a fundamental quality of humanity. What separates us from other species on this planet is our ability to consider the universe, to seek a deeper understanding of how it works and what is our place within the grand cosmos. In a way, astronomy is a bit like poetry, art and music. It is a discipline that provides its own reward by enriching our lives. We astronomers should never forget that it is a special privilege to be able to devote ourselves to this task, and that we have a responsibility to share what we learn with the world around us. 

Sunrise over Maui, viewed from Makapu'u point on Oahu.

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