S t e v e  M u r r a y
Instrument Builder and Chandra X-ray astronomer
Chandra X-ray Observatory

Steve is standing next to the HRC which is inside the Science Instrument Module at Kennedy Space Center just days before the launch of Chandra.
How did you get started?

When I was growing up and still in middle school (Jr. High School) I was extremely curious about how things worked. I was always looking at cause and effect. "Pull this lever and it makes this gear turn". I remember taking apart the Bendix brake on my bicycle to see how it worked. I didn't actually figure it out, nor was I able to put it together again and I got into deep trouble because of that. I think I apply both lessons from that experience in my life: I still try to understand how things work, but I've learned that taking something apart is not always the best way to find out.

A latter principle I learned in High School was something my math teacher once said about solving problems. "If you get stuck, write down everything you know, perhaps the answer will be contained there." I keep that in mind when I am looking for answers, even outside of math.

Of course, as a researcher the important practical things I keep in mind are to try to make sure that the answers make sense. That is, I try to make "back of the envelope" calculations or approximations to problems that I can compare with more detailed and usually less well understood calculations where I am using some complex computer system that has been provided. I think that sometimes we become too dependent on "the computer" and lose our intuition and insight. When I was in college learning physics we used slide rules to calculate with and part of learning to use a slide rule involved keeping track of the decimal point in our heads. When hand held calculators and now various PC's become available this skill was no longer as necessary. I think that is not such a good thing, because we loose track of the decimal too easily now.

John Polozotti, Steve Murray, and Jon Chappell wearing clean suits with safety harnesses while working on Chandra in the Shuttle Bay area.
As a builder of things as well as one who uses them, there is the principle of knowing the use of the device. In all of the detectors I have built I have always had a scientific stake. I enjoy building detectors--it is probably what I do best, but without a scientific grounding and a real stake in the success of the resulting instrument, I don't think things would work as well as they have. I think this is something that distinguishes scientists and engineers, and this is not to be negative regarding engineering, or to be snobbish regarding scientists. Being a scientific user of instruments you develop means that you really do have to care about the more subtle and annoying little things. Calibration, stability, complexity, etc. all become serious problems for the science user if they are not thought about carefully by the builder.

Finally, the main purpose for all of my work has been to learn and have fun at the same time. Doing science is a great joy. I come to work each day with a smile and the knowledge that today I will learn something I did not know yesterday. It is a very satisfying feeling to solve problems whether technical, scientific or even bureaucratic.

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