J o h n  L e i b a c h e r
Astronomer
National Solar Observatory, Tucson, Arizona

My Career Path

I always enjoyed taking things apart - and occasionally being able to put them back together - in school, and had a couple of really great math, physics, and chemistry teachers, and I really enjoyed reading about science. I wanted to be an engineer and build bridges, airplanes or something like that I guess. Then, in high school, I read a couple of popular books by George Gamow about how people were starting to understand what the Sun was, and how the elements of the Universe were created, and I realized that all of this 'knowledge' in the books and encyclopedias was REALLY shaky and that we really didn't know very much at all. There wasn't a neat package of facts that I just had to read about, but there was a whole Universe out there to explore! Exploring, asking questions, AND seeking their answers was really exciting!!! It's like a really complicated game, whose rules we don't know, that we're trying to figure out, and enjoy as we stumble along. The game is life, the universe, and everything else.

I was very fortunate in college, where the very first month I got to fly in an airplane above the clouds to see a total eclipse of the Sun, and teachers with Nobel prizes to their credit who just added to the excitement of the game. Soon I was observing with the world's most sensitive radio telescope and working as a 'baby sitter' at a particle accelerator on the weekends to pick up some spare change. These were really neat "toys", and I was hooked.

When I got ready to start tackling some problems on my own, I came across a curious recent (then) discovery that the surface of the Sun oscillated up and down with a period near five minutes, and no one had the slightest idea why. No one had expected the Sun to behave like this, and an 'explorer' had just stumbled across this strange behaviours; well actually he was a pretty astute explorer and was looking for unexpected things - which is what science is all about. A friend pointed out that we aren't doing "scientific research" but "scientific searching" for the unexpected. Anyway, a friend and I came up with a description of this peculiar oscillation, and our model made some predictions, which some other friends went out and confirmed. This was definitely neat. It also points out that scientific research - even if an essential aspect is sitting and scratching your head - involves working with a lot of interesting people, and this team work - OK, arguing - really tests your ideas and is how science advances. AND, you make a lot of friends around the world. A really nice thing about this "discovery" - the Sun already knew how to make these oscillations for the last few billion years - was that very shortly we learned how to use these oscillations as seismic waves to study the inside of the Sun, the way geologists use earthquake-generated waves to study the inside of the earth. A couple of friends and I even got to write an article Scientific American and we got this really cool picture on the cover.


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