A n d r e a  P r e s t w i c h
Astrophysicist
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Ed. Note: In program 1 Andrea describes mid-mass black holes: so we asked her, "Do black holes come in all kinds of sizes and so far we've only just found a few sizes?" In her response you get the sense of how the Chandra astronomers speak about black holes-as very real creatures, chewing things up, and eating nearby stars and dust!)

Andrew Prestwich:
One of the things that has come out of looking at M82 is the possible existence of these mid-size black holes. Up till now, as I've said, we've really only known about little itty bitty black holes that we see in our galaxy and the really supermassive guys that exist in the centers of galaxies. So then of course the question comes up, do a whole range of masses exist but we just don't know about them? And I think that may be possible because you can only actually see a black hole if it's swallowing something. That's the only way you'll ever see a black hole. So if it just so happens that we see the little guys because they are in binary systems because they are nearby and they are close to a normal star and they are chewing up the normal star, and we see the really massive guys because they in the middle of galaxies, it just so happens that the ones in the middle don't have anything to eat. So we won't see them.

In fact some of the massive black holes in galaxies don't have anything to eat. And so they are very dim, they are not very bright at all. So I think it is possible that actually there's a whole spectrum of masses and we just have not been able see the midsize ones. But that is very, very speculative and we just don't know for sure.

 

P2K:
If there is a female student sitting out that who is saying, gee, I would like to study star formation regions, do you have any advice for that young woman?

Andrew Prestwich:
As I said, I had a hard time at high school as a girl, because science was not considered something that girls did. The teachers were fine with it-but actually, I hate to say this, the other girls didn't think very much of it, and definitely the boys did not think very much of it. However I think things generally get easier when you get to college. It's the playing field is not level. It's harder to make a career in astronomy if you are a woman than if you are a man. I think there is lots of evidence to show that women are not promoted as quickly as men of similar qualifications and experience and background.

Having said that there has never been a better time, ever, to be a woman in science. There are problems, but they are much less than they ever were. Now is the time! It's great. I have been incredibly lucky, because the place where I work is essentially gender neutral. My supervisor is a woman. Many of the management staff are women. It's just not an issue. It should not be an issue. For me personally it's not issue, but I would be lying if I said it was never an issue. It can be an issue, and there very good evidence to suggest that women are subtly discriminated against.

But, do it. You'll have a wonderful time. It is a fantastic career. There's never been a better time.

P2K:
What makes this such a good time?

Andrew Prestwich:
One of the reasons it is so exciting to be an astronomer right now, is because it really is a golden age of astronomy. Especially for x-ray astronomers. We have Chandra which gives us incredibly high-resolution images. There is XMM, which is a European satellite which does not have such a high spatial resolution as Chandra but enables us to get incredibly good spectra. There is the Hubble Space Telescope. There is a whole new generation of ground-based telescope which have a much bigger collecting areas-8, 10 meter telescopes. New detectors are being developed, very sensitive CCDs-we are getting at problems now that 20 years ago people were just dreaming about. Imaging galaxies forming at the edge of the observable Universe, it's just an incredibly exciting time to actually be in astronomy.

 

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