Interview with an astronomer
I got the opportunity to conduct an email 'inverview' with a NASA astronomer Dr. Sten Odenwald who is heavily involved in math and science education.
I thought that was a nice opportunity. I've always sort of admired astronomers - perhaps because they deal with this vast and awesome universe that is full of wondrous things, and the space, of all things, maybe best reminds us mortal beings of the huge difference between us puny things and the Creator.
So now let's get to hearing from the astronomer!
1. What is your task at NASA right now?
Sten: I am a research astronomer studying how galaxies first formed in the universe, and I am heavily involved in K-12 education for several NASA satellite missions. I create math problems based on real-world science and data, that is targeted at middle and high school students.
Can you mention a web address where students and teachers can find these?
Sten: I have several websites to select from, depending on what you are looking for:
- The Astronomy Cafe
- Space Math @ NASA – interesting math problems for grades 9-11 about space related topics.
- Ask the Astronomer
Briefly describe what other kind of astronomy related tasks/ jobs you've had.
Sten: I have always been an astronomer since receiving my PhD at Harvard in 1982. I have worked at the Space Sciences Division of the US Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC, spent several years at NASA Headquarters as an advisor and consultant for NASA space missions planning, and since 1991 have worked at the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center on missions such as COBE, IMAGE, Solar-B and Themis.
What got you started to be an astronomer?
Sten: My Papa showed me the stars in the constellation Orion when I was 10 years old, and ever since then I have been captivated by astronomy... though never wanted to be an astronaut.
What role did astronomy play in your life in your teen years (before entering university)? Why not an astronaut?
Sten: Astronomy was very important, and a constant source of inspiration and excitement. I was also a very big fan of science fiction, reading about 30 novels a year from grade 8 through 12, and so my astronomy experience as a teenager was part fact and part fantasy. Science fiction acted like my 'battery' to drive my curiosity about astronomy even further.
Unlike my friends in school, I actively sought-out the inspiration and awe of the night sky, even from my suburban environment in Oakland California. No one else really seemed to 'get it', or if they did, the experience to them was 100% religious with no element of genuine curiosity about what they were seeing. My curiosity about space compelled me learn huge amounts of facts and information from age 10 to 18, at ever increasing detail and complexity.
One of my greatest experiences was writing my own 25-page article on what was known about the origin and evolution of the universe in the late 1960s. It wasn't part of a homework assignment. I just needed to do this to fuel my own enthusiasm and curiosity.
When I attended UC Berkeley and took an Introductory Astronomy course, I submitted the 'paper' I wrote in 10th grade as my term paper, and got an 'A' on it, with the professor saying that it was one of the most insightful and passionate essays he had read from an Freshman in a long time!!!
The secret to success in science is to feel passionate about something.. and then DO something about it. Don't just sit in a chair and passively expect the knowledge to 'appear' in your brain. You have to be resourceful and go after information and absorb it. Don't wait for a teacher to assign it as homework!
This is also the secret to success as a citizen. If you keep hearing about DNA, stem cell research and global warming, don't just sit there and feel frustrated you dont understand it. Go read a book about it and be actively curious about it!
Tell us a little about your studying math in grade or high school.
Sten: It was generally a frustrating process with lots of tears. My parents were unable to help me with geometry, algebra or advanced math, and there weren't any tutors available, so I had to struggle through it as best I could.
I was a B-average student, with very occasional As through grade 11, but then an amazing thing happened. In my Senior year in high schol, I took an advanced math 'pre-calculus' course but by January we were learning differential and integral calculus.
I totally fell in love with calculus, and when I went to college the next year, I got straight As in calculus and advanced math. So, after all that grade-school frustration, I had finally persevered and discovered just how beautiful math is, and how it applied to physics and astronomy.
Describe your education a little, and especially let us know what role mathematics played in your education.
Sten: As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, I concentrated on physics and math almost exclusively. You cannot do very much in physical science without being fluent in mathematics because 100% of the data is numbers and 100% of the interpretation of that data uses equations and other tools in mathematics to look for patterns and relationships.
On a typical day, I use algebra and calculus in my work, so you have to be absolutely fluent in understanding how to 'speak' this language... and it is a language. It has an alphabet (numbers and variables), sentences (equations) and you use it to tell stories or write poetry (laws, hypothesis or theories). Only some of the many stories (theories) endure (proven correct), however, so you always have to be prepared for some degree of failure!
Interview conducted by Maria Miller