Astronomy to the Rescue
Perhaps the single biggest factor in delaying the inevitable decision to abandon my quest for a PhD. was the allure of astronomy. During the first semester I took my first astronomy course (Astronomy 212 – The Planets) with a very weird instructor named Bram Boroson. (When you think of the awkward, nerdy, creepy stereotype of a professor, you’re on the right track. I don’t mean any offense, but he really needed some help in the pedagogy department.) Anyway, despite his idiosyncrasies, I really enjoyed the course material of the class. So for the following semester, I took the next course offered: Astronomy 211 – Intro To Astronomy. Yes, I did take my astronomy courses out of order. But they covered different topics at essentially the same level – 211 was not a prerequisite to 212. Intro To Astronomy was where I met Dr. Layden.
I am not alone in finding Dr. Layden to be one of the nicest professors imaginable. His fun, enthusiastic love of astronomy comes through in his teaching. He was always willing to help students on their homework assignments, and encouraged students to enjoy learning about astronomy through various projects that went beyond the scope of the textbook. And as I soon learned while working with Dr. Layden observing at the telescope on campus as well as in independent study courses later on, his level of patience was mind-boggling. Seriously. How could this guy be so inexhaustibly patient with students?
Of course, his kind and gently encouraging teaching methods would lead to some rather stagnant classroom discussions that could have been avoided had he simply asked “did you do the reading?” rather than painstakingly help the student construct the correct answer through a string of questions leading the answer he was seeking. But even if the education one received in his class was a bit “soft” it nonetheless provided a good background for a lot of future teachers trained at BGSU – and having at least some decent science background established before teaching legions of children is to be commended. No-one slept through his classes.
Throughout the course of Intro To Astronomy, I established myself as a competent participant in classroom discussions, assignments, and exams. Being a physics major certainly helped. And given the sometimes low standard set by my peers (mostly from a lack of effort on their part), I stood out in the class. With all the usual hubris of youth and inexperience, I started to feel that perhaps Astronomy was my new calling. I mean, I always liked Star Trek and whatnot, but had never been one for stargazing. But I got it in my head that this was the best path to take for research experience. Although it was not until much later in my undergraduate degree that I realized this move was more towards the path of least resistance: a move that I would pay for in the end.
That summer, I worked for Dr. Layden observing at the telescope on BGSU’s campus during summer nights. I shared the nights with a graduate student named Leon, and over the course of that summer, learned how to operate, calibrate, and take pictures with the CCD camera mounted to the telescope. The pictures were of RR Lyrae variable stars, which pulsate with regular frequencies. Long story short, the frequencies of these pulsations tell you how big the star is, and how bright it should look if plopped into the space where our Sun currently resides. By measuring the difference between light measurements in different color filters, you can estimate the amount of light reduction taking place (called “light extinction”) between the star emitting the light and the telescope detecting it. Calculate that color correction, and voila! You have yourself a tool for measuring interstellar reddening.
Ok a quick note for why that is at all important or interesting (a question I myself struggled with many-a-time while taking pictures or reducing data at a computer). Measuring the light of a star lets you tell how far away it is. If dust and gas particles are obscuring some of that light, then you might think a star is much farther away than it actually is! So to get an accurate idea for how large our galaxy (and nearby galaxies) are in size and distance, we need to make sure we’re measuring the amount of light accurately. By the way, the entire project Dr. Layden was using this data for was the VSP (Variable Star Project), a grant-funded endeavor to gather calibration data for a planned NASA mission – one that has since been cancelled.
So I got a handle on the basics of astronomy and some hands-on experience doing the kind of work actual astronomers do. That kind of direct experience was valuable, but sadly I missed the warning signs that I wasn’t enthusiastic about it. You’d think after a completely inverted sleep schedule for an entire summer (after all, the observing has to happen at night), I’d have noticed that I would secretly hope for a cloudy or rainy night that would preclude observing that evening. But no, I kept thinking “it’ll get better when I get to do some actual research.” Well, it didn’t, but I kept thinking it would.
Next post: my experiences taking some “real” astronomy courses. As in, “really hard” ones.
Until next time, bonnes pensées.