Catching Up with John Nousek

Q: What do you enjoy most about working in the field of high-energy astronomy?

A: High-energy astronomy did not exist before I was a student. I feel like my whole life in astronomy has been like the time of Galileo in optical astronomy: Every time we build a new instrument we discover brand new things, much as Galileo when he first turned his new telescope on the sky.

Q: Of the many research projects you've worked on, which has been your favorite?

A: I've enjoyed all the projects, but Swift is probably my favorite. Swift involves working with a varied group of American, British and Italian scientists that meet every day to discuss the most important science of the day. Each day can bring a totally new discovery and we must adapt our planning in just a matter of hours. This rapid response is exciting and makes us a place that all astronomers watch and support.

Q: What was your first thought when the Swift Satellite captured images of an exploding normal supernova?

A: Total shock. Supernovae are expected to occur about once per 25 years to once per 300 years in a galaxy. To actually see one go off while we were watching it is truly a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Q: What has been the biggest change or development in your field over the years?

A: Space science has become much more international over the years. Once the US and the USSR were the only places that could launch satellites, but now Europe, Japan, India and China are all participants.

Q: What is the biggest misconception about your field of research?

A: There is a double misconception when I say I work in X-ray Astronomy. First the X-ray part makes people think of medical X-rays which are really pictures of the shadows cast by the body from a bright source behind the body. Astronomical X-rays are the emission of X-rays by astronomical objects. The other misconception is the confusion of astronomy and astrology. Astrology is the belief that the study of the stars and planets can lead to an understanding or prediction of the future behavior of people or events on Earth. Since the 17th century this is no longer considered a science. Astronomy is the study of the location and brightness of objects in the sky. Combined with the principles of physics, we can use astronomy as astrophysics, which is a powerful tool to understand the Universe, and remains a science.

Q: What are some of the most interesting research collaborations you've had the chance to work on here at Penn State?

A: We have just started a collaboration with the IceCube consortium. IceCube involves a set of 79 long lines (more than two miles long each) drilled down into the ice near the South Pole. IceCube discovers neutrinos that have passed through the Earth and, on rare occasions, make a small flash of light in the deep ice, allowing us to find an object that makes neutrinos. Swift will promptly observe the locations of those flashes. If Swift can find them they will be a brand new way to discover the most energetic explosions in the Universe in our own backyard (cosmically speaking of course.)

Last Updated May 18, 2011