Monday, December 17, 2012

Astronomer of the Month: Timothy Dolch

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 Timothy Dolch.

Tell us a little about yourself!

My name is Tim Dolch, and I’m a postdoctoral research associate, or postdoc, at Oberlin College in Oberlin, OH. (“Postdoc” refers to the phase in a research career between graduate school and a permanent position, during which a professor or full scientist hires a recently graduated Ph.D. While postdoctoral appointments are typically only funded for two years - and astronomers often do at least two separate postdoc jobs - the benefit is that you can devote most of your time to research. Finding a permanent position is, obviously, nice and permanent, but the downside is that a lot more of one’s time goes into grant writing and other administrative matters.) Born and raised in the vicinity of Cleveland, OH, I attended the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA where I majored in physics, although taking as many astrophysics classes as possible. I did my graduate work at Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute  in Baltimore, MD. There I did my thesis research with Harry Ferguson, and became a co-investigator on the CANDELS project.
What is your specific area of research? What is your role within the CANDELS team? 

For my postdoctoral research I’m working with the NANOGrav collaboration detecting gravitational waves with pulsars. Within the CANDELS group my research was, and continues to be, on the extragalactic background light or EBL. (See my July blog entry for a more detailed explanation.) During the 20% of time I have as a postdoc to work on personal research outside of the NANOGrav collaboration, I have been leading the EBL group’s telecons and working on several papers that, together, will be a sequel to my Ph.D. thesis.

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

My family went to science museums and astronomy club events frequently when I was growing up, and so I don’t really remember a time I wasn’t interested in astronomy. I have always been an avid science fiction fan, which led me to read a book called “Asimov on Physics” when I was fourteen years old. It’s a beautiful little book that traces the history of physics starting with, I think, Archimedes, and ending with the Uncertainty Principle. After that I was sure I wanted to work in some area of physics, and naturally this led me to astrophysics.

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

During graduate school I realized experientially how important the writing process is to being a scientist. While I had known this fact theoretically, I was surprised how much time it was taking me. Eventually I took the advice of friends and colleagues and started writing for three hours every morning (even if I didn’t know exactly what I was going to say), and then made a lot of progress. I discovered that one shouldn’t simply think up ideas first and write about them later – writing itself is part of the scientific thought process. It’s not as though you have an insight about nature one day and then the next day have to pay the price of writing about it. The encounter with nature can happen the moment you touch your fingers to the keyboard.

Who has been your biggest scientific role model and why? 

Although he was primarily a mathematician, Jacob Bronowski has become one of my heroes because he is filled with wonder at the very fact that  science works at all. I read his book “Science, Magic, and Civilization” during graduate school and suddenly found myself not taking the profound nature of scientific reasoning for granted. I remember being taught in elementary school that the scientific method consists of forming a hypothesis, doing an experiment to test it, and then modifying the hypothesis according to the results. While this is not false, it’s grossly incomplete. We go through that process in our heads all the time with or without science. Cavemen went though that thought process. What is the insight that occurred during the scientific revolution? According to Bronowski, it was the conviction derived from Platonic thought that nature operates linguistically. The language nature speaks is the same mathematical language we know. The book helped me to see that this strange correspondence between ourselves and the universe (strange because we can understand it at all!) is a reason to always expect surprises from nature.

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

It’s a lot of work and personal sacrifice – for example, you have to be willing to move anywhere in the country, if not the world, at multiple junctions of your career, especially during the postdoctoral phase. But the reward is all the beauty you get to see which you wouldn’t otherwise know about. My favorite aspect is the way that, as time progresses, I’m more and more amazed by subtle, more hidden phenomena that I wouldn’t have known about as a general reader. Recently I learned that millisecond pulsars which have a double-peaked pulse are that way not because they are double pulsars, but often because they are single pulsars rotating at speeds approaching that of light – and thus their apparent pulse profile undergoes a relativistic transformation.

What motivates you in your research? 

I wait expectantly for those moments when something in nature becomes, as it were, unveiled. This happened most strikingly for me when I was looking at a plot, and saw that one of my background predictions lined up unexpectedly with a published measurement.

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

For me it’s a tie between the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and the Arecibo Observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. HST needs no further justification after one sees the Ultra Deep Field for the first time. Arecibo (featured in the movies Contact and Goldeneye) is the observatory with which I have a lot of tangible experience – it’s breathtaking to enter the coordinates of a pulsar in the control room and see the Gregorian dome 450 feet above you move and track the source.

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

I would like to continue doing research and be heavily involved with teaching and outreach as well. 

If you could have any astronomy related wish, what would it be? 

The Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia in under threat of closure. This would be a tragedy for radio astronomy, especially as far as gravitational wave detection is concerned. So I would like to see that saved. I would also like to see an EBL-specialized camera mounted on a spacecraft flying to the outer solar system. That way the extragalactic (or at least, extrasolar) background light could be observed without obscuration from all the dust in the zodiacal cloud. There are proposals in the works along these lines.

What is your favorite, most mind-boggling astronomy fact? 

Interstellar dust grains migrate into the solar system and occasionally enter our atmosphere. About 22 tons worth of interstellar dust reside in our atmosphere at any given time.

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

I did theater in high school, and recommend the experience for astronomers or any scientists who are starting their careers. It can help you with speaking to an audience later on, which is something you’ll eventually do frequently.

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