Elmegreen lights up lectures with stars

Prof Elmegreen c_o Vassar Media Relations
Professor of Astronomy Debra Elmegreen stays busy in and outside the classroom. In addition to a busy teaching schedule, she also studies the origins of stars and participates in astropolitics. / Vassar Media Relations

“If I wasn’t going to be an astronomer, I was going to be a baseball player,” commented Professor Debra Elmegreen, adding. “I was very young and torn between the two until my dad said ‘There aren’t any girls that play Major League Baseball.’ And there weren’t many girls that went on to astronomy either, but it was more than zero. By the time I was ten, I was pretty much sold on astronomy.” Elmegreen is the Maria Mitchell Professor of Astronomy at Vassar. Her title owes its name to Vassar’s

earliest faculty member and the first female professional astronomer. Like the Maria Mitchell of the past, Elmegreen juggles teaching and research. She has contributed to the body of scientific knowledge and advocated for the imporance of the government’s investment in astronomy research. Elmegreen served as president of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) for two years. She has twice testified before a Congressional Subcommittee. In 2009, she was invited to the Vatican to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy

with Pope Benedict XVI. Elmegreen’s passion for the universe beyond Earth began at an early age when she would go stargazing. “I lived along a river in a dark neighborhood and you could go out at night and see the Milky Way and it was that childhood wonder that never left me,” said Elmegreen. Eventually, she got to do this through high-powered telescopes. Elmegreen recounted her time as a graduate student at Harvard handling what at the time was the largest telescope in the world. “When I was using the 200 inch Palomar you’d sit at the top of the telescope and you’d be in this enormous dome, at the very top end of it where the light would come down and reflect and go up to the top, called the prime focus. You’d put a photographic plate in at the prime focus, all in the dark. You’d open it up and there you are:

there is nothing below you except the structure of the telescope and nothing above you but the sky and it is just incomprehendable,” she said. Advances in technology have changed the field of astronomy since her younger days. Today, Elmegreen can sit in her dining room and download data from the Hubble Space Telescope with the click of a mouse. One of her happiest memories was making a discovery with the help of this telescope. “In the last five or so years, I’ve been looking at the Hubble Altra Deep Field, which is a piece of the universe that has never explored, with 400 orbits of whole time pointed at a blank piece of the sky,” said Elmegreen. This blank piece turned out to hold some key information for the origins of our own small spot of the universe. “There are 10,000 galaxies in that blank piece of the sky that have never been seen before. And

I looked at some very unusually shaped ones that turned out to be very distant and they are the precursors to our Milky Way,” she said. Elmegreen described star formation then as more vigorous than what can be found today. She added,“To realize that’s what came before our galaxy was a really fun discovery.” In the past decade, Elmegreen has been mostly engaged with astropolitics and looking at the most pressing problems in astronomy today. She served on the Decadal Survey Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics, which comes up with a community consensus on what the federal government should be doing next. After being on this panel, she became president of the American Astronomical Society. “It carried on some of the ideas that we wanted to accomplish and talked to Congressmen and funding agencies like the Science Foundation, NASA and Department of Energy—and explained why we wanted certain telescopes built and what lines of research were most pressing,” she said. Elmegreen accomplishes this while also teaching at Vassar College. Many of her colleagues teach at a big university with a course load that is typically one class per semester. Elmegreen, however, teaches an annual course load of five classes. Often times she has to go to conferences during school, so her husband, also an astronomer, teaches her classes. Although she prizes teaching, Elmegreen admits that balancing it with her research can be daunting. “What is hardest is to get research done during the academic year, so I do it in bits and pieces. I never have a long block of time for research so my computer is always open and an inch from my hand and whether I am at home or at work, I have pieces of time to do things. I never go home and leave work behind because there is always something more to be done,”  said Elmegreen. But patience goes hand in hand with the study of galaxies. Researching the lifetime of stars over billions of years can often feel like it is taking aeons of its own.

“As I get older and more involved with what goes into having observatories, the funding that goes into having observatories and having the data you need to make discoveries, you realize that a lot of things are on a very slow timescale,” said Elmegreen. She continued, “I think the wonder of it all is to keep realizing that we are an itty-bitty part of the universe, and yet it is a pretty important part, and how that all fits together.” The joy of exploration and putting puzzle pieces together is what makes the difficult task of waiting worth it for Elmegreen. Astronomy is, in her opinion, a field that demands a certain type of mindset from its practitioner, one that can be difficult to pin down. “[It’s] a very different type of creativity than in literature, music, or art—but it’s creativity nonetheless—where you are thinking of some avenue to explore and along the way, you come up with a piece that no one else has ever thought of.” An astronomer’s life revolves around trying to understand the universe—something that is nearly unattainable, at least tangibly, that is. In a speech, Steven Hawking compared humans to cockroaches: imagine trying to teach a cockroach what a human knows and then imagine what it’s like for the universe to teach humans what it is. Delmegreen shared that she can occasionally feel frusturated by these very limits. “I felt that way in class today in my last lecture. I was talking about the multi-verse view— maybe we are not just one universe even, but there are many other universes—and yet you have to sometimes throw up your hands and laugh at some of the ideas today because they are so far beyond anything that we can really grasp right now,” she said. It is in the very pursuit of knowledge, however, that Elmegreen believes is worthwhile.  “I think we aren’t going to get it all. There is a basic human limit. We are going to keep on discovering more and more stuff, but there will always be something beyond us. So I just think ‘Just go for it and be a part of it and enjoy it.’”

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