Messier 101 was one of
the galaxies I studied
in my PhD thesis.
|How I became an Astronomer|
H. E. (Gene) Smith
Teaching my class
I have always been interested in the way that the Universe works. From the youngest age I can remember I wanted to be first a scientist, then a physicist, when I learned what that was. My initial interests pointed me towards what we would call Particle Physics today - the way that things work at the most fundamental level. When I was in High School I took all the math and science I could - including advanced placement courses in math, science and english (it helps to be able to write creatively!). This was a time of rapid growth in astronomy/astrophysics - the discovery of quasars, distant radio galaxies, molecules in the Milky Way - almost every issue of Scientific American that arrived at our house had an article about new discoveries in astronomy.
|During the summer after my Senior Year I attended a science camp in the wilds of West Virginia, near the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's site in Greenbank. In addition to playing with the IBM 1620 computer - the size of a barge and just about as slow - we had talks from scientists from various Universities and the nearby Observatory. My interest was further heightened by these talks, and by the realization that astronomy was, and is, such a far-reaching and wide-open science.|
National Youth Science Camp, Camp Pocahontas, W.Va.
Still there and going strong.
Kitt Peak Observatory; I worked at the McMath Solar
Telescope (foreground) part of the summer of '66.
|I entered Caltech, in Pasadena, CA as one of 200 freshmen - a prospective physics major like all the others. A "culture course" in basic astronomy gave further nourishment to my interest in astronomy and I managed to get a summer job at the Kitt Peak National Observatory near my home in Tucson, AZ. I worked in the Solar Astronomy division, but found the work that some of the other students were doing on stars and galaxies to be more exciting. Back at Caltech I got a school year job in the Cosmic Ray group, again on the fringe of my developing interests. As it came time to focus the direction of my interests, I realized that experimental developments in Particle Physics required huge teams and multi-year experiments to make progress. Astronomy was then, and still is a science where fundamental discoveries can be made by a group as small as a University researcher and one or two students. I changed my major to astronomy. That didn't get me out of any courses; I still had to take all the math and physics, plus the astrophysics courses.|
|I went on to graduate school in astronomy at the University of California's Berkeley campus - you need a PhD to make a career of astronomical research. The first time I went to UC's Lick Observatory to work on a research project that I was involved in, I knew I was in the right place. There is no feeling quite like discovery - knowing some piece of the great puzzle of how the Universe works that no one else knows. And there is more to be found out in Astronomy than just about any other field.|
UC's Lick Observatory where I made the
observations for my PhD thesis.
My avuncular advice to prospective astronomers and scientists of all flavors: