Friday, July 26, 2013

Astro and the City

Many times, when I tell somebody that I'm an astrophysicist, they imagine that my job involves sleepless nights looking at the stars, worrying about inclement weather, city lights, an atmosphere eager to capture my beloved photons, and the occasional cosmic debris that could get in my way. How cool would that be? Sometimes, I wish I could I bask in that glory and I am tempted not to reveal that I belong to the much less glamorous subset of the "theorists" - my concerns tend to be about codes that don't run, take too long to run, or whose final outcome doesn't make any sense. Somehow taken aback by this news, my interlocutors (before checking that I don't know much about the multiverse either, and turning around to speak to someone more interesting) sometimes offer as a consolation: Well, at least you can do your job from anywhere. And it's true. In particular, I can do it from the best city in the world and not care about its crazy light pollution, or proclivity to snowy, rainy, or otherwise very humid days. Astronomy in NYC is very much alive - because even if you can't look up, you will look around, and that's what science is about. 

When I first started my job as an assistant professor at CityTech, a four-year college that is part of CUNY, I was thrilled, in order to: 1. Have a job; 2. Have a permanent job; 3. Have a permanent job in a place I like a lot. There were challenges; there still are. Others on this blog have described the time management problems of your first year in a tenure-track position better than I could do it myself, so I won't try. But what I found to be very unique about this place was an unanticipated support network of colleagues, and some incredible opportunities to connect with the public. 

CUNY, the City University of New York, is one of the largest public universities in the country; more than a quarter million people attend its 23 colleges. Still, none of these colleges has an Astronomy department; each of the 10 full time Astronomy faculty belongs to Physics, and despite that being my first love, I have now moved on with my life and want to do the fun stuff. So what we do is to gather in the Astrophysics Department at the Museum of Natural History, a place that is incredibly inspiring with its views of the Hayden Planetarium. Office space is tight and one could expect that some sort of seniority may determine whether or not you deserve a cube on the sixth floor. Instead, my colleagues made me feel welcome from day one, from escorting me to the common lunches when I was still too shy to go alone, to encouraging me to come more often and conquer my seat that way. They had successfully applied for a grant to support undergraduate research in the NYC area; I am now benefiting from it by supervising a great student that they had recruited. In no department of Astronomy I found such a knit-tight sense of community, and I think it comes from being somewhat outsiders ourselves. So, CUNYastro, thanks! I want people to know who you are

Image credit: Brooklyn Superhero
So I'm all set for the work part. What about reaching out to the public? Well, doing that in NYC is the most fun I've had in years. Last year I was asked to set up an activity for 6-8 grade kids at the New York Hall of Science. Sounds just normal so far… but the context was a little different: the singer Bjork produced an album called "Biophilia" and inspired by her love for science, and was promoting the album by organizing week long camps for children where they would learn about music, biology, physics, and Astronomy. The song I was illustrating was "Dark Matter" - it might be tricky to relate this topic to children, but it gets easier if, five blocks from where you live, there is a shop called "Brooklyn Superhero" where Dark Matter is sold by the gallon (and of course, they are not just a store, they organize all sorts of educational activities). I actually saw one of them at the last AAS, so they are becoming famous! 

Recently, an email was sent around to the Museum internal mailing list about an initiative called "The Intergalactic Travel Bureau", and I thought it would be fun to participate. We set up a travel agency in a temporary space close to Penn station, and proposed to our clientele destinations like Pluto (great for skiing and debates!), Jupiter (great hurricane watching and moon-hopping), Titan (swimming in frosty methane lakes), or Venus (gotta lose those stubborn 10 pounds before the holidays?). Since most of our clients couldn't afford the hefty fees or long leaves of absence from work associated with interplanetary travel, we would also give them the option of just sending postcards from these exotic destinations to friends and families.

Mark Rosin, Jana Grcevich, me, and Olivia Koski.
Image credit: Olivia Koski

It was a great way to connect to the public, especially because most of the people who came in weren't expecting us to be there, and/or had no previous interest in Astronomy - yet, everyone was a good sport and kept a straight face while we were describing the dangers of sailing the solar winds or diving into Europa's oceans. On my side, while happily riding back to Brooklyn on my scooter and enjoying a gorgeous "Manhattanhenge" looking west on 34th street, I found myself thinking of what very special mix of stories and people made this initiative possible. The original project was developed in the UK by an organization called Guerilla Science, whose US president, Mark Rosin, will be joining the faculty at Pratt in the Fall. The main organizer, Olivia Koski, is a former engineer with a passion for Physics and Astronomy and a graduate degree in Journalism. Someone she knew from graduate school (a professional astronomer turned graphic designer) saw these works of art depicting interplanetary travel. The artist, Steve Thomas, agreed to donate them to the project. An art organization, Chashama, donated the space for a week. With so many of institutions in and around the city, a bunch of astronomers, captained by Jana Grcevich, volunteered to staff the agency. And of course, many of the people who walk the streets of New York City every day were curious and open enough to come into our strange booth. 

Every day, I realized how lucky I am in being part of this amazing and diverse community. We might not have dark skies here in NYC, but we sure have bright people.

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