When thinking about when I knew I wanted to be an astronomer, two things come to mind. One was seeing Saturn’s rings through my first telescope. The second was a book, a Christmas present from my grandparents.
The book was “The Collapsing Universe: The Story of Black Holes,” by Isaac Asimov (the author of “I, Robot,” among his over 500 works). Although it hasn’t aged well (indeed, the title references the now disproved hypothesis that the universe’s expansion would eventually reverse, producing a cosmic “big crunch”), it was perfect for my nerdy-fifteen-year-old brain, with just enough math to illuminate the concepts without going over my head.
By my junior year in high school, I had realized that my first choice of career path — genetic biology — was counter indicated by my lack of aptitude in chemistry. Astronomy became my “Plan B.” I aspired to study black holes for a living.
Like most budding astronomers, with a bachelor’s in physics (with an astrophysics minor), I went to grad school for an astronomy Ph.D. In my sole course in general relativity (Einstein’s theory of gravity which birthed the modern concept of black holes), I found that the concepts came easily, but the math proved daunting, foreshadowing my eventual failure to pass my qualifying exam to enter the doctoral program.
While a crushing blow to my ego, finishing my matriculation with a “terminal master’s degree” proved a blessing in disguise. It highlighted my passion for explaining complex astronomical concepts to non-astronomers, my career for the last three decades, during which the existence of black holes went from theoretical to proven to a new window into studying the universe (with the groundbreaking detection of the gravitational wave “chirps” of merging black holes, in 2015).
Next column: How to see one of Jupiter’s moons eclipse another.
Chris Anderson manages the College of Southern Idaho’s Centennial Observatory in Twin Falls. He can be reached at 732-6663 or email@example.com.