Where science and tech meet creativity.

It’s odd how sometimes ideas will all come together  all at once.  I’ll see in a book, see on the television, and see even in my own notes the same thing resonating loudly. This has been one of those odd 48 hour periods of everything coming together all at once. While flying to Nebraska last night, I was reading a book  handed to me by a friend: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It’s a beautiful book, and I have to admit it’s made me tear up in places. There are things I don’t like – the character John – but I know I’ll eventually read it again to find the  things I missed on this first read through.  There were things that caught my attention, and I dogeared the pages as I read and marked in pencil  or pen quotes the I liked. But this blog isn’t about literature, and some of you are probably wondering why I’m writing this,  and why I’m writing this under a title “loving what we do.”

About an hour ago I finished giving a talk to a physics major seminar course at the University of Nebraska. There were about 40 young minds,  intent and willing to listen. I was there to tell them about what got me into astronomy, what  astronomers do, and what doors are open to different careers. The thing I wanted to stress is that with physics and astronomy you can explore, you can create, you can go beyond just the numbers in the equations.  We don’t get paid  enough to do what we do if we hate it. We can only justify the long hours for low pay and the sometimes crazy travel with a passion that drives us to not be happy unless we’re doing what we do in each of us needs to find our own way.

This is what gets me to this book. Last night on the plane I hit this passage:

We’ve reached the end of pure inspiration, and are now somewhere else, something implying routine, or doing something because people expect us to do it, going somewhere in each day because we went there the day before, saying things because we have set them before, and this seems like the work of a different sort of animal, contrary  to our plan, and this is very very bad.

This section refers to how the author and his coworkers at a magazine feel about the change in how they approach their work.  I have to admit I  have felt this way too. Their project started on a laugh and a dream.  This isn’t very different from research. We get an idea, we decide to create, explore, question, try.  We laugh our way through the project descriptions, working through dinner as we define the first problems, and on that first all-nighter that we  fight through as we work our way through our first grant, it is all still fine, all still worth the lack of sleep,  the lack of life, because at first the project is bigger than any of us  and it is simply the project that must be done.  I have taken risks with my career, deciding to take time away from classic research — variable stars, galaxy evolution, things that you expect to see published in the Astrophysical Journal — deciding to take time away to instead create podcasts ( and research how they impact people), to create websites  (and see how they bring people together), to explore language and learning  (and ask if we communicate what we mean to), and to try and understand how you understand what I’m trying to tell you about the universe. I’ve taken risks to follow passions, each project bigger than me.

But then one day the projects become mundane; they become work.

I still love what I do. The people I work closest with are people whom I respect  and I trust and I suspect I’ll be working with over the decades to come. But those are just the  handful of people I work closest with. Then there’s everyone else, and the work, and the politics, and the paperwork, and the trying to hold it all together and make sure everything gets done. There are days that are simply not fun. There are days when I think about setting it all aside and just writing websites, writing books, just staying at home and creating things that don’t require any approval paperwork. Or at least  there are fractions of days. I don’t think it’s ever been so bad that I’ve considered leaving astronomy for more than an hour or two. But there are days I think about giving up on  this or that  bureaucracy that should make my life easier in the long run, but right now it just makes me miserable. I’ve had the days, it felt like the days in this  book passage, were each of us is simply  “doing something because people expect us to do that.”

These are usually the days when I’m writing not the first grant for a project but the second or third or fifth, and the thing that made the project a joy and a rush  has been forgotten as we battle over budgets and try to figure out just what piece of paper is needed this time and what format is required by this potential funder. These are usually the days when I’m waiting to hear on the grant, to hear on my fate, to find out if I get to follow that dream and answer the question.

They don’t tell you about the waiting in graduate school.  They don’t tell you how you’ll spend six months not knowing if this great idea that you got is something you’ll be funded to do, something  that will be funded before the graduate students who  you wish to work with wander off and graduate and go somewhere else. Like most of the astronomy education community, I’ve been waiting to hear on a NASA  Grant since the middle of the summer. I’m waiting to hear on  an EPO rider on another project, and God  I want to do that project.  It’s like being hungry and only having enough money to order one pizza for you and a friend, and making that call and spending that money  you both scrounged out of your pockets and out of your book bags and then waiting first one hour than two hours than three hours as the pizza never comes. Sometimes you get lucky, and suddenly the pizza arrives with extras — free garlic bread, free soft drinks. But sometimes there’s not even a call to say ‘sorry.’

And in the moments while I’m waiting, I feel like I’m going through the motions. In these moments it’s hard to remember the passion  for the projects that carried us through that sleepless night when we wrote the words that might define the next three years of our lives. It’s hard to remember it as I go through the motions of grading, and posting homework, and writing the second grant for some other project, and as I work on the websites for IYA, and I work on all the random things that have to get done because it’s what’s expected.

But then I travel,  and there, in front of the classroom, in front of the lecture hall, in front of the auditorium I look out on a sea of faces -  a sea of people who don’t know if this is going to be just another boring science lecture or maybe, just this time, maybe it’ll be something exciting, something interesting, something that will make them feel alive and open their mind, open their curiosity, and carry them to another part of the universe. In that moment, as I open my power points, my keynotes, my websites, my videos, as I open the various technologies and look out  and breath in,  I remember what it felt like the first time I fell in love with astronomy. As I exhale my talks, I try to instill life into the audience, and on those days when I hit my stride, and hit my marks saying the things I want to say, I like to think a couple walk away a little bit in love with the parts of astronomy that mean the most  to me. And no matter what they go away with, there is something about watching them come alive, watching them fall into the slides and the ideas and concepts; it makes me feel alive. This is the beauty of teaching. I get to see over and over what it’s like to experience all these wonderful things our sky has to offer for the first time. I get to experience everything anew and fall in love again.

I love to travel. I can only travel when someone else pays my way and sadly it really helps when they pay me because the days I travel are the days I don’t get paid. This is one of the flaws in being a contract soft-money astronomer.

Today, in Nebraska, was a good day when I was reminded that I’m still in love with my research, with teaching, and with trying to communicate astronomy to the public. And today is a day, when I think maybe just maybe a few more people will go to bed wanting to get up the next day and learn more about citizen science, about astronomy podcasts, and about how they can get involved in the International Year of Astronomy.

As long as I have these days, I will always be an astronomer.