I got my Ph.D in astronomy from Harvard University back in 1982, and since then I have been employed at the Space Sciences Division of the Naval Research Laboratory, BDM International, the Applied Research Corporation, and most recently Hughes STX all located in the Greater Washington, D.C. area. My dream, as for many young astronomers, was to get a tenured position in astronomy at some college or university, but that option never materialized for me. I have since turned my creative energies in public education towards writing over 15 articles in magazines such as ASTRONOMY and SKY AND TELESCOPE, and authoring several books. I have written 4 complete book manuscripts during the last 6 years, but so far have not been able to get a single publisher to publish them.
How is your job changing?
I now get to spend more time in public education. Since getting out of graduate school 15 years ago, and never getting an offer to teach as a "day job," all of my education works has been in writing popular articles and doing adult education courses. Now, I have finally found a way to make education a big part of my day job as a 'contractor'. 10 years from now, I expect I will be doing about the same as what I am doing now, but worrying less about loosing my job in a year. As a contract astronomer for 15 years, this temporary way of living has become so entrenched in how I do science and how I think about my career, that it has been impossible to think of long term research projects, or plan my professional life over more than 2-3 years. I think this is slowly changing.
How has the Internet affected your profession?
I have been on the Internet for over 10 years. Most of this time was using email and FTP, but the single biggest change has been in the explosion of professional resources now available such as data archives. Now that NASA is committed to putting real data online immediately after the satellite/spacecraft get it, every astronomer has nearly instant access to new data. This has increased the pace of research enormously, and for many of us, we no longer need to worry about not getting observing proposals accepted to get our own data. We can often use what is already online to do some of our research. As for education, it is now a whole new ball game since we have decided that the Internet is now the new godsend for educating our children. I hope this new experiment works, because we are sure investing lots of money into it so that every poor urban school has a spiffy, expensive, high-tech link to the web.
What's your favorite web site and why?
I view the entire WWW as a single web site, but the Babylon V Lurkers Area is my favorite 'room'. I love the series, the actors and actresses, and the story line...one of the finest pieces of science fiction I have 'read' in a very long time.
If your job were a song, what would it be?
Well...each decade seems to have its own in my book. In the 1960's it was Spanky and Our Gang's "I'd Like to get to know you" when I was a kid trying to fit in. In the 1970's it was Cool and the Gang's "Summer Madness" or the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's "Reminiscing" while I was in college and graduate school. There are lots of others. The 1980's is a big jumble of favorites, but I have not paid any attention to Rock and Roll since 1988 or so.
What's your professional culture like?
Pretty bleak and gloomy by most people's assessment. It is a solitary job. You work mostly alone in an office with a computer terminal. You have occasional hallway chats with people on the same floor, and once a week you MIGHT all get together for a 'bag lunch' to hear someone give a 30-minute talk about some topic. A few times a year you go to national meetings or to observatories. Meetings can be fun because you get to meet old friends from grad school, or new collaborators. Observatory trips are terribly exciting and usually the high point of your year as you make the actual discoveries you will then investigate back at the office for the next year or more. We all dress very casual; jeans, sneakers, shorts, and other fashion elements depending on your age and status. I know of no astronomers except those over 60, that wear suits and ties. We set our own office hours, we come in and leave when we please, but usually work more than 40 hours a week even with this schedule, except if we have families. I never work a minute longer than 40 hours because my family life is more important to me than my professional life.
Why do you do what you do, and how do you see it affecting the greater world?
I am compelled to do what I do...teaching and research...by a profound sense of wonderment about the physical world. It is a childlike wonderment that I have managed to shield in this area from the cynicism of adolescence and adulthood that is so rampant in today's society. We are all children at heart, and for scientists and astronomers, we get to hang onto the pure wonderment and enthusiasm of childhood a lot longer than in many other professions. It is the battery that drives us to ask 'silly questions' and to make momentous discoveries from time to time, because as adults we also know how to go about finding answers to the questions that are still posed by the child within us. What I do affects the world by letting meaning and light shine a little more brightly and deeper into the recesses of our ignorance. Humans have many prejudices, and most do not have the time or inclination to understand how the physical world operates. My profession is that collective aspect of society that is assigned to search for answers to questions that most people do not have the time or capacity to answer. In finding answers and uncovering new questions, I help to make our world a more comfortable and less mysterious and frightening place to live and raise a family.
The preceding biography originally appears on Sten Odenwald's web site, http://www2.ari.net/home/odenwald/vita.html.
Dr. Sten Odenwald, PhD.
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