Award-winning researcher and teacher has stars in his eyes to give lecture on astronomy at Alpine

Imagine a childhood filled with telescopes, night skies, and a lifelong fascination with stars, planets, and galaxies. Robert Quimby lived it.

“It’s really my parents’ fault. They were both amateur astronomers, so some of my earliest childhood memories are of looking through a telescope,” says the astronomy professor at San Diego State University and director of the observatory of the Mount Laguna. “We’ve been on a lot of ‘star parties,’ which are basically camping trips with telescopes. I was driven independently, so I learned to “jump the stars” and locate deep sky objects, like galaxies, on my own.

On Friday, he will present a talk highlighting some of the research being done at the observatory, as well as some of the nonprofit work being done to reduce local light pollution. His presentation begins at 2 p.m. at the Alpine Library.

Quimby, 45, lives in the College area with his wife, Mika, and their two daughters. He has received awards for his research and work from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the American Physical Society, and part of the 2014 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. He took the time to talk about his work, his first impressions of the jaw-dropping images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and his time playing in a California ska band “Reel Big” from the South.

Q: In the description of your presentation, the San Diego County Library website mentions the Hidden Skies Foundation, a nonprofit organization run by high school students based in Los Angeles, and its work to “preserve dark skies for future generations “. First of all, can you talk about light pollution?

A: Any artificial light that shines where it isn’t needed, isn’t useful, or is just wasteful, is light pollution. It could be a floor lamp shining through a bedroom window giving you a restless night’s sleep, although astronomers usually use this term when discussing the light streaming across the sky. nocturnal and darkens the stars. No one tries to hide the stars behind the glare of electric lights, but just as trash accumulates in our rivers and beaches, the natural beauty of the night sky can be destroyed by the indiscriminate light cast by outdoor lighting. .

Q: And what’s important about the work of keeping the night sky dark? Why is this lack of light in the sky important?

A: Dark, star-filled skies give us a connection to our past and hopefully our future. From a dark site, you might see the same stars that your great-great-great-grandparents enjoyed on their first date, or that dazzled our ancestors thousands of years ago. Light pollution breaks this connection by blotting out the stars. I saw the thrill of San Diegans glimpsing their first sight of the Milky Way while camping at Mount Laguna, and would say it’s worth protecting these views for future generations to enjoy as well.

What I love about College Area…

We have good neighbors where we live in the College area. Several families welcomed us to the neighborhood soon after we arrived here, and our children quickly became friends. There are lots of friendly waves as people walk by or drive by. And, there are four taco shops within walking distance!

Q: You have served as Director of SDSU’s Mount Laguna Observatory since 2014. What have you learned about the surrounding area over the years and its place in the study of astronomy?

A: Mount Laguna Observatory sits at 6,100 feet (500 feet higher than our colleagues north of Palomar Observatory, but who’s counting!), so when the marine cloud layer sets in so typical in May-grey/June-dark, we are usually in the clear above the clouds. Even better, low clouds block out some of the light pollution from cities and make nights even darker. Being near the coast, we also benefit from the gentle ocean breeze, which gives us a much clearer view of the stars than the turbulent air further inland.

Q: What made you interested in this field of study?

A: [Astronomy] remained a hobby of mine in college when it came time to choose a major. I started with engineering because I liked understanding how things worked, but moved on to physics and astronomy, at least partly because I thought the professors were more interesting people. One of them once dropped off a bunch of climbing gear at the start of a lecture, then kept talking for the entire period without ever mentioning it. He was just rock climbing before class. These extra dimensions of personality really appealed to me.

Q: Why was it something you wanted to pursue professionally?

A: I thought that was better than having a real job. I love solving puzzles, but sometimes when the puzzle is something you have to do, it can feel like a lot of work. As an astronomer, there’s a whole universe of puzzles to choose from.

Q: Earlier this month, most of us were in awe of the images of galaxies shared by NASA from its James Webb Space Telescope. What initially crossed your mind when you looked at these images?

A: I was really surprised at how amazed I was. I’ve seen Stephan’s Quintet and the Carina Nebula before, but the images from the James Webb Telescope convey them with such power and beauty. They are both familiar and otherworldly.

Q: And how did you think about what you saw from your perspective as a professor and astronomy researcher?

A: The first images show how much we missed. The James Webb Telescope offers, quite literally, a new way to look at our universe, and we’re starting to see things we’ve never seen before. It was quite terrifying sometimes to wonder what would happen to the future of astronomy if this telescope failed; now that it has arrived and is working superbly, I for one am thrilled.

Q: What was difficult about your work in this area?

A: Like the universe itself, the field of astronomy is vast and growing at an accelerating rate. It takes effort to stay on top of all the new discoveries that are coming. It is also sometimes very competitive. Other bands are often working on similar projects to mine, so there’s pressure to post first.

Q: What was rewarding about this job?

A: Every once in a while you make a breakthrough discovery. I discovered a new class of supernovae and later discovered the first supernova amplified by a strong gravitational lens. It’s pretty quick when you put the pieces together and realize you have something no one has ever seen before.

Q: What has this job taught you about yourself?

A: Much of science tells the story. We report our findings in scientific journals and give professional and sometimes public lectures. I never considered myself particularly good at writing as a student, but I’ve come to realize that storytelling is something I enjoy.

Q: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: For anyone considering getting their PhD, take a gap year between undergraduate and graduate school and do something totally different. One of my college professors gave me this advice, and it gave me the opportunity to broaden my view of the world and, ultimately, to meet my wife. If, like me, you find academia calling you back, then you’ll know graduate school is for you, and you’ll be motivated to persevere even when the going gets tough (it will).

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: Before becoming an astronomer, I played trombone in the ska band “Reel Big Fish”. It’s been a while since I last picked up my horn, but I can still say “take it” pretty quickly.

Q: Describe your ideal weekend in San Diego.

A: I’ve never done this before, but would love to stay at one of San Diego’s local resorts. Ideally, one with entertainment for children and relaxation for parents. Other than that, I would enjoy a weekend that included hiking Mission Trails with my family and a trip to a new restaurant one day, followed by a relaxing day at the beach and a BBQ with friends and the family the next day.

About Johnnie Gross

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