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Meet the Scientists

Sallie Baliunas
Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

  Dr. Judith Lean

I was born and grew up in New York City and its suburbs. I am currently a research scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Because I grew up in the city I rarely saw the stars at night. From the earliest time I imagined adventures in space. Rocket flights to other planets and stars were important in my early imagination. At the library I read as many books as I could about space. I thought how fine the Sun was while at Jones Beach in New York. Besides books, movies and television had an great impact on me. I remember seeing movies like "X-15" and "Breaking the Sound Barrier," Books by Isaac Asimov or George Gamow, or movies on science and mathematics from the Disney Studios. Then there was science fiction -- Flash Gordon, Invaders from Mars, Target Earth, The Blob, The Crawling Eye, etc.

The television broadcasts starting with the Mercury missions stood in my young mind as awesome goals and achievements. Imagine reaching for the moon -- and then actually touching it. I was already interested in being a physicist while in graduate school, where I learned about the sun's 11-year "clock" of magnetism (the sunspot cycle) when I journeyed to Mount Wilson Observatory to meet the scientists there. One scientist, Dr. Olin Wilson (who was of no relation to the man after whom the mountain was named), had begun a project 12 years earlier to look for the sunspot cycle on other stars. Because Dr. Wilson was retiring, I became vastly interested in seeing his project continue. We now are in the 34th year of the HK Project of studying the "starspot" cycles of sunlike stars. I would like it to go for 50 years.

I was educated at public schools in the New York City area; high school in New Jersey;Villanova University; and Harvard University . I received my B.S. degree, Villanova, and my A.M. and Ph.D. degrees, Harvard, all in astrophysics. I currently run a research program to study the impact of past, present and future changes in the Sun and their influence on the life and environment of Earth. For part of my work, I study other sunlike stars -- those close in mass and age to the sun. Other stars that I study include those that are very much older or younger than the present-day Sun. When I work at my desk at Harvard, I usually arrive at 6:30 AM and work until 3 PM or so. Then I drive home to take a 4-mile jog with my dogs. Later I might work with my colleagues in California by way of the telephone or computer.During the day I work with the scientists and students in the lab. On the other hand, if I am working at my telescopes in California my schedule goes topsy-turvy. I sleep until 4 PM, then eat breakfast and prepare my equipment for the night. I work at the telescope making measurements of other stars until dawn. Then I go to sleep just as dawn heralds the return of the Sun.

At times, I might travel to a meeting to discuss my results with colleagues, or I might be asked to present my ideas to the public -- at schools, etc. I do all of this because I want to know how the Sun's 11-year magnetic clock works. We astrophysicists are total technology fans. I rely on everything -- from television to "watch" the stars through the telescope, to advanced detectors to catch photons, to computers to gather the information, and the information superhighway to transmit my data back to my office computer. Our astronomy instruments are becoming very sophisticated. Some have robotic control -- enough that I program their operation days or weeks in advance, and watch the results coming in.

The best thing about being a scientist is to discover something that no one else has seen before. Around 1609 Galileo said, "I render infinite thanks to God for being so kind as to make me alone the first observer of marvels kept hidden in obscurity for all previous centuries." There are some things that I dislike about being a scientist - the paperwork of reports, budget sheets and analyses are annoying.

I decided to become a scientist who studies outer space because sooner or later humans would be exploring there. I took all the physics and math I could in college. In graduate school, I did research in several areas but found that a satellite had been launched to observe the ultraviolet region of the spectrum of stars, which is inaccessible from the Earth. The sun's magnetic features, like the sunspots, cause strong glows in the ultraviolet, and I began studying the same phenomena on other stars. I try to look at other areas of study (e.g., the origin of life, climate change) that may relate to changes in the Sun.

One of my guidance counsellors in high school tried to talk me out of going to college altogether. She thought women would have an easier life if they just got married and did not have a career outside the home. Anytime I receive unhelpful advice like that I ignore it. After all, it was my life, not hers, and what difference would it make to her if I had to study hard to get through college?
One of my heroes is a Nobel physicist, Richard Feynman. In his books he reveals excellent wisdom given to him by his first wife. He was mortified that she had given him pencils printed with personal sentiments on them; everyone at work saw them. "What do you care what other people think?" she told him. If you have a dream, pursue it, is his advice. It was lonely being a woman in solar physics but more women are becoming scientists. For years I was the only woman in a sea of men in physics classes. I tried never to think about it. I only wanted the education.

I used to be a ballet dancer (at MIT -- yes, there was a dance troupe there) and now I jog. I also fix up old cars into hot rods -- I have a 1933 Ford 3-window coupe, 1957 Chevy Bel Air, for example. If I had chosen a different career, it would have been as a dog psychiatrist. I want to understand intelligence, and would like to compare the human brain to the animal brain, for instance, in dogs. A note to young women interested in pursuing a career in science: Do not let anyone stop you. And, if you are interested in a different type of career, please take science anyway. Our world is increasingly one of technology, and science is the way to improve the health and welfare of humankind and the environment.