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Meet GMTO: Bob Goodrich

Bob Goodrich is GMT’s Observatory Scientist. He has a Ph.D. in Astronomy and Astrophysics from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He’s been with GMTO since March 2015.

What sparked your interest in science?

I have always been fascinated by those greater things out in the Universe; planets, stars, galaxies… What discoveries can we make without being able to go out and touch the stars?

Describe what you saw when you looked through your first telescope.

I first looked at the Moon through a cheap, department-store 40 mm refractor that my siblings and I had bought with our allowances.

How old were you when you decided that you wanted to pursue a career in a STEM field?

I was interested in astronomy at a very early age. My mother has something I wrote when I was about 7 years old, where I said I want to become a doctor and have astronomy as a hobby. (At that age I didn’t realize that you could get a doctorate in astronomy!) My interest really piqued when my family moved to rural Australia, where they turned off the town’s streetlights at 11 p.m. to save electricity.

Both within your field and outside of it, who do you respect/look up to and why?

I aspire to Mike Bolte’s calmness. Jerry Nelson was an inspirational figure, and from earlier in my career, Robert Leighton had brilliant ideas and was also a wonderful mentor. Richard Feynman had a unique, creative way of looking at questions in physics.

Within your field, what area fascinates you most and why?

I am fascinated by the cores of galaxies, where giant black holes lurk, sometimes in the dark, barely revealing themselves, and sometimes in a glorious display of brightness and energy, as a quasar.

Another exciting field is how much we can tell about a planet that we see moving across the face of its parent star. In principle, we can tell the composition of its atmosphere, whether it has clouds, whether there are moons orbiting it, and more.

What has been your most rewarding success/accomplishment to-date?

One morning, after I had gone to sleep after a night of observing at the McDonald Observatory in West Texas, I had a dream about a polarizing element that we had been designing. The challenge was that it had to work over a wide range of wavelengths. In the dream I realized that I could take an existing design and modify the geometry to produce what we needed. “It’s all just geometry,” I remember thinking. I woke up from the dream and told myself, this is important. I started drifting back to sleep, and then shot bolt upright, thinking, “this is REALLY important! I need to write this down before I forget.” This optic became the core of polarimetry instruments at McDonald, Keck, and Palomar observatories.

Another truly rewarding success was running science operations at Keck Observatory. I had a great team, and the teamwork at the Observatory in general was fantastic. Working with a wide range of scientists and science programs was more fulfilling to me than working on my own narrow research field. I hope to help reproduce this camaraderie and environment for GMT operations, and to streamline the challenging jobs of the future operations staff so they can enjoy the ride like I have.

What has been your most surprising moment within your career?

When I discovered that the Duck Nebula, V645 Cygni, had lost its beak! In 1988, I published a paper on this young star and the gas cloud surrounding it. I showed images in which it looked like a duck seen in profile, with a narrow, straight beak. When I looked at it with the Keck telescope a couple of decades later, that beak had disappeared! I showed that it was a beam of light sneaking out past the dust around the star. Apparently that dust rearranged itself in the intervening years to block that beam of light.

A second surprising moment came when I first realized I had made a discovery that very few people in the world knew about. Suddenly I realized that I was a world-class expert on something!

What was your initial impression of GMTO and why did you get involved?

The lure of helping to develop one of the next-generation telescopes was too strong to resist. GMTO was started by a visionary team of scientists and designers. When I was hired, many experts from around the world were being assembled to carry on the project, including people I knew and respected from earlier in my life. I knew that switching from operations to a design and build project would help me grow, and that the discoveries that the telescope would eventually make would make me proud and satisfied that I could participate in even a small way.

Share a non-science related talent/skill/interest/hobby that you have.

I used to be an avid volleyball player. I also played basketball in college and subsequently.

What advice would you give to young kids exploring STEM fields as careers?

Enjoy the thrill of discovery. At first you can enjoy it through learning about the discoveries of others, like Einstein, Feynman and Edison. Before you know it, you will be making your own discoveries. Keep up your math and computer skills, as these will serve you well in your career. And look for opportunities to get involved in STEM programs and projects early.