Welcome to the second half of our fascinating conversation with Alan Hirshfeld, professor at the University of Massachuetts Dartmouth and a stellar figure in astrophysics as well as an author of highly readable nonfiction.
Q: Al, what can you tell us about your latest scientific passion?
A: This is a hard one to answer, there are so many. This past week, for instance, I related the life of the sun to my astronomy class. I was struck by how much more we know now about the sun’s interior structure and its evolution than we did when I was in college. Back then, our knowledge was fragmentary, computer simulations were rudimentary and were narrowly focused on particular stages of the sun’s life. Somehow, from these incomplete vignettes, we had to piece together a coherent and continuous pathway of solar development. Today we have essentially a day-to-day portrayal of the sun’s evolution, with a detailed knowledge of the internal physical processes that occur along the way. It’s a much more satisfying story to teach.
Q: Reflecting on your career, what’s been your fondest ‘Eureka’ moment?
A: It happened as I was developing the concept for my first trade book, a general primer about the science of stars. The publisher’s editor was dubious about my idea; she asked me to write a sample chapter. At random, I chose the chapter about stellar distances. It’s not easy to measure the distance to a star; even the closest one is incredibly far away. I learned that the first star distance was obtained in 1838. What, I wondered, prevented astronomers from measuring a star distance before that date? I found that telescope technology had lagged far behind the research aspirations of astronomers. Who had tried – and failed — to measure a star distance with earlier telescopes? I kept asking myself these kinds of questions, and each answer took me farther back in the history of astronomy and technology – all the way back to the ancient Greeks, who’d also speculated about the remoteness of stars. That Eureka! moment arrived when I realized that my seemingly narrow story of measuring a star’s distance is, in fact, an epic tale that extended over thousands of years and involved some of the greatest names in science. In that instant, the real story of what would become my first book unfolded in my mind. The book turned out to be Parallax: The Race to Measure the Cosmos.
Q: Do you see your main role as science writer or scientist? Who
else and what else do you write about—or yearn to?
A: I describe myself as a teacher who writes, a hybrid of scientist and communicator. To research a subject, I read everything I can get my hands on. I need to get a complete sense of the person or the scientific issue at hand. My current project is the history of 19th century observational astronomy: how celestial photography and spectroscopy revolutionized astronomical research. I’m also delving into the crucial role of amateur astronomers in the development and promotion of those new technologies.
Q: What are your takeaway thoughts on Archimedes, for instance?
A: Over the years, I’ve had plenty of articles in Sky & Telescope, including a recent one on Archimedes’ ideas about the size of the universe. It’s not a serious scientific treatise, he’s basically showing off his skill with big numbers. But it’s intriguing to see his thought processes. Anyone who thinks that ancient brains were any less capable than ours should read some of Archimedes’ works. The body of knowledge possessed by the Greeks was smaller and their assumptions about nature’s processes were flawed, but their analytical skills were razor sharp.
Q: If you weren’t doing what you do, what career have you fantasized
A: Auto mechanic, although I have no particular talent in that area. I like to fix things and I don’t mind grease. When I was a kid, I tried to turn our lawn mower into a go-kart. I got as far as sawing off the blades. Now that I think of it, it’s probably good I became an astrophysicist.
Q: I’d have to agree! Can you tell us what eccentricities you have in your working life? What sort of environment encourages your muse?
A: As to eccentricities, you’d have to ask my wife or my kids. On second thought, better not. With a demanding teaching career and a busy family life, I often have to sneak research and writing into those moments when nothing else is going on – often late at night. (Libraries are always open on the internet.) To stimulate the writing muse, I read passages from writers I admire, like Dava Sobel or Carl Sagan.
Q: Most unusual place you’ve ever gone to do research?
A: The basement of Widener Library at Harvard. You could get lost in there and never be found. The place smells like books, smells like history. I love it.
Q: It sounds wonderful. To finish up, I want to relate a “small world” story about Eureka Man, the book you did on one of the Greek superstars of ancient times. You and I share the same publisher, Walker Books, and we’ve both written about early scientists in the Greco-Roman world. More recently I learned that we share another, weirder bond. We’ve both had aortic valve replacement surgery. While reading Eureka Man, I was riveted by a paragraph describing the famous Archimedes screw. It said, and I quote: “Motor-driven forms of the Archimedes screw are employed in modern pumping stations and wastewater treatment plants. A tiny version is also found in mechanical cardiac assist systems, which maintain blood flow in patients with heart failure or undergoing heart surgery.”
• To me, it’s yet another reason why the ancient past seems so alive to me. Just think –we may have survived sophisticated surgery thanks to a nano version of an invention created by a genius who lived nearly 2300 years ago.
Alan, thanks for sharing all your stories and insights with us.