The Questions, with Michael West -Fall 2013
What brought you to Nantucket? Tell us your story.
Serendipity. To be honest, I wasn’t looking for a job. I was living in Chile, where I was scientific director for a major European organization that’s building the world’s largest telescope there, supervising an international staff of 90 astronomers, which was pretty exciting. But I saw an advertisement for the position of director of the Maria Mitchell observatory and thought, “that’s my dream job!” So I decided to apply. I love this job because it combines two of my passions – increasing public awareness of astronomy and doing research with university students – plus I have lots of opportunities to be creative, which I really enjoy. It’s also nice to be back in New England, which is where I grew up, and to be closer to family again.
How did you become interested in astronomy and how old were you when you first started gazing at the stars?
I’ve been interested in the night sky for as long as I can remember. As a young boy growing up in Connecticut, I’d sometimes lay on the roof of our house at night to watch shooting stars. But my interest in astronomy really took off in high school when I read a book by the late, great astronomer Carl Sagan called “The Cosmic Connection.” That book changed my life. I soon discovered stacks of old astronomy magazines in the back of my school’s library and I’d read them every day at lunchtime. I felt like I’d found a treasure trove. Eventually I learned that it’s possible to do astronomy for a living and so that’s what I decided to do. I’ve been a professional astronomer for more than 25 years now and still believe I’ve got the best job in the world. It’s a dream come true to get paid to do something so enjoyable.
Tell us where your career has taken you and some of your discoveries along the way.
I’ve always had wanderlust and astronomy provides many opportunities to see the world. I did my Ph.D. in astronomy at Yale, followed by research and teaching positions in Canada, the Netherlands and Gambia. Eventually I was offered a professorship at the University of Hawaii, which – besides being a lovely place to live – offered access to some of the world’s biggest and best telescopes there. Seven years later I moved to Chile, where I led scientific operations at the Gemini South telescope before moving to the European Southern Observatory, a partnership of 13 European countries that operates some of the world’s best telescopes and is building the biggest one ever in the Chilean desert. After seven years in Chile, I happily washed ashore on Nantucket as the new director of astronomy at the Maria Mitchell Association.
Sometimes I wonder if it was crazy to have given up tenured professorships at two different universities. But life is short, and I truly believe that in the end we’re the sum of all our experiences, and so I’ve opted to try new things rather than follow the safest path. I’m very fortunate that my wife Cheryl and son Caden have always been incredibly supportive. And although I’m glad to have had the opportunity to see the world, we’re looking forward to finally putting down roots here on Nantucket. Our nomadic days are behind us.
What are the most fascinating things, phenomena, to observe in the night sky?
The night sky is full of so many wonderful things to see, it’s hard to know where to begin. My personal favorites are galaxies and star clusters. They’re objects that I study for my research and I find them stunningly beautiful. Two objects that never fail to impress people when they see them through a telescope are the moon and the ringed planet Saturn. And watching the Milky Way stretch across the sky on a dark night is also an awesome sight.
How are Nantucket’s conditions for stargazing? Where is the best spot you’ve ever been?
Nantucket is blessed with some of the darkest skies on the East Coast, thanks to its location 30 miles out to sea and negligible light pollution on the island. Unfortunately, those dark skies are often hidden by clouds or fog, which limits the number of nights for stargazing. The thick, moist atmosphere here at sea level also makes stars and galaxies look blurrier than they would from higher and drier locations. But on a clear night nothing beats lying on any of Nantucket’s many wonderful beaches and enjoying the celestial show going on overhead.
I’ve been lucky to live in two of the best places in the world for astronomical observations, Hawaii and Chile. At the summit of Mauna Kea, 14,000 feet above sea level on the Big Island of Hawaii, the sky is so dark that on moonless nights the Milky Way itself casts faint shadows. It’s a sublime sight. And in the Andes Mountains of Chile the sky almost seems to come alive with stars. The southern sky is so beautiful, it has stars, constellations and galaxies that can’t be seen from here in the northern hemisphere. I can’t understand why everyone who lives in the southern hemisphere isn’t an astronomer. But then again, I don’t understand why everyone in the northern hemisphere isn’t an astronomer either.
Can you tell us about the equipment at the Maria Mitchell observatories, and when can people come in and view the stars?
We’ve currently got four telescopes at the Maria Mitchell observatories. At the Loines Observatory on Milk Street, our main location for research and public stargazing, we’ve got a beautiful refurbished antique telescope from 1908 that gives exquisite views of the moon and planets. It’s exciting to hear children and adults say “that is soooo cool!” when they look though the telescope and see the moon’s craters or Jupiter’s moons or Saturn’s rings for the first time.
We’ve also got a modern telescope with a 24-inch mirror at Loines that’s our main research instrument. This summer, for example, our students have been using it to search for cannibal galaxies, large galaxies that devour their smaller neighbors. In the past we didn’t have an eyepiece on this telescope, only a camera, which is true of most research telescopes. Earlier this summer, however, we added an eyepiece so that people can look through it. It’s actually one of the biggest telescopes anywhere used for public stargazing.
We have another observatory on Vestal Street with a modern 17-inch telescope also used for research. And recently, thanks to a grant from NASA, we purchased a solar telescope with special filters to allow safe viewing of the sun. This telescope shows sunspots, eruptions and other features on the sun’s surface. It’s pretty amazing.
During summer months we’re open for public stargazing at Loines Observatory every Monday, Wednesday and Friday night from 9-10:30 p.m., weather permitting. We have daytime tours of the Vestal Street Observatory at 2 p.m., Monday through Saturday. If it’s sunny we set up the solar telescope outside, which is a nice chance to see the sun like you’ve never seen it before. And don’t be surprised if we show up with the solar telescope on a downtown sidewalk, beach or other location from time to time too.
How can people get started learning about astronomy? What would you suggest?
There’s a ton of great stuff available these days to learn about astronomy. A good place to start is the Atheneum. They’ve got astronomy books for all ages. There are plenty of online resources too. One of the best is Astronomy Picture of the Day (apod.nasa.gov), a beautiful new astronomical image each day with a simple one-paragraph explanation. NASA (http://www.nasa.gov) and Hubble Space Telescope (hubblesite.org) have great websites full of images and information. Another of my favorites is EarthSky (earthsky.org). For anyone who wants to get more serious about astronomy, Sky & Telescope or Astronomy magazines are great resources. And of course – shameless plug – you can also learn about astronomy from my weekly “Nantucket Nights” column in The Inquirer and Mirror.
If you could have dinner with any five people, living or dead, who would you choose and why?
Wow, interesting question! I’d probably pick the following – Albert Camus: No writer has influenced my thoughts about life, death and the universe more than Camus and his concept of the absurd. I’ve read almost everything he ever wrote, some in the original French. Like Carl Sagan’s book “The Cosmic Connection,” Camus’ “The Stranger” and “The Myth of Sisyphus” changed my worldview. I imagine that a dinner conversation with Camus would sparkle.
Fritz Zwicky: He was a pioneering astronomer and original thinker in so many ways. He discovered the existence of dark matter in the universe, predicted the existence of supernovas, neutron stars and that large groups of galaxies could bend light rays like a lens. But he was also a prickly personality. He referred to his Caltech colleagues as “spherical bastards” because “they’re bastards every way you look at them.” If he hadn’t been so obnoxious they’d probably have named a telescope after him by now. Dinner with Zwicky would be anything but dull and might even end in fisticuffs.
John Burroughs: The great naturalist had the most beautiful way with words, and great insights into the human condition. If I could give one book as an instruction manual to everyone at birth, it would be Burroughs’ 1920 “Accepting the Universe.”
Maria Mitchell: I’ve read her journal writings, her scientific papers and other publications, of course, but it would be wonderful to meet her face to face, to fill in the gaps and know the whole person. And she apparently enjoyed a good beer, so we’d hit it off well. If history repeats, after awhile she’d probably excuse herself from the dinner and go outside to discover a new comet.
My Dad: It’s been 34 years since my dad died when I was 19 years old. We’d have a lot to catch up on.
Are there any celestial events we can look forward to in the next 12-18 months?
Well, the big event promises to be the newly-discovered comet ISON. It’s a sun-grazing comet, one that passes so close to the sun that it might break apart. But if it survives it could be the comet of the century, glowing so bright that it’s easily seen with the naked eye. The best time to see it will be in November and December 2013. We’ll be looking for it with our telescopes at Loines Observatory as early as September or October.
What’s been your best find about Nantucket so far in the short time you’ve been living here?
I’ve been really impressed by the high density of genuinely interesting people here on the island and how welcoming everyone has been. It’s a small but vibrant community filled with all types. Having previously lived on another island for seven years (the Big Island of Hawaii), as well as Nova Scotia (almost an island) for five years, I think it takes a certain mentality to not only survive but thrive in an island environment. Maybe that’s why I feel so at home here on Nantucket, surrounded by kindred spirits.