VIsiting astronomer talks telescopes, universe


SHAFAQNA- On Monday, beginning at 6:30 p.m. Craig Nance, Superintendent of McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas, will be the special guest lecturer for the Tallahassee Astronomical Society’s (TAS) monthly meeting at the Challenger Learning Center.

Nance will talk about the giant telescopes he has worked with, and the two compelling science questions of our age and what we in the astronomy community are doing to understand them: 1) what is the story of our Universe?  2) Is there life in the Universe?

First, what got you interested in astronomy?

I have had an interest in astronomy as far back as I can remember.  That I can remember, there was never a time that I was not interested in astronomy.

When did you realize you wanted to do astronomy for a living?

It was always something I wanted to do, but it took time to figure out how to make it happen.  I initially thought I would pursue my interests as an “advanced amateur” – building my own telescopes and the like.  But, ultimately I found I could have a successful career in the profession as a professional as my advanced studies in electromagnetics were a great match for astronomy.

What was your first job in astronomy?

I joined the staff of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) at McDonald Observatory, initially as the Electrical Engineer.  I was part of a team tasked with getting the telescope on-sky, commissioned, and performing science.  Within a very short period of time I was offered to be the Site Manager of the HET; the on-site lead of the telescope.

What do you do?

I am Superintendent of McDonald Observatory in West Texas, responsible for providing the day-to-day leadership of a large astronomy site.  It’s like being the mayor of a small town of astronomy.  I provide leadership for the telescopes and their operations, maintenance, and long-term improvements to ensure that they are scientifically competitive; are attentive to the needs of the nearly 100,000 visitors each year.  I also work with the University leadership and the scientific community to establish a strategic vision for the Observatory, so that the work that is done on a daily basis links with longer term goals.  I feel I am able to do this thanks to my career having once been a director of an observatory site in Arizona, and a long tenure at Keck Observatory in Hawaii; a highly advanced observatory where I served in a position roughly analogous to being the Chief Engineer.

What do you tell astronomy students on how to go about getting into the field of astronomy?

There is a misconception that “astronomy” is only Ph.Ds that spend all of their time looking at and analyzing data.  Many observatories operate like small towns where the business is science.  This requires staff that can do everything from science, engineering, teacher education/STEM, trades work, finance and business, and so much more.  The Observatory has a lodge; like a small hotel.  All of those people are passionate about the science mission of the Observatory, and how each of us does our part.  So there are many ways that a person can contribute to astronomy at a very high level in many ways like this.

Ken Kopczynski is the president of the Tallahassee Astronomical Society, a local group of amateur astronomers. He is the recipient of the 2013 Partners in Excellence Award presented by the Big Bend/Leon Association.



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