Letter 1: Minnie Mao asks John Mather about observing vs. theorizing

For an introduction to the online dialogue, click here

Dear Professor Mather,

It was really lovely to meet you at the Lindau Meeting. I had a wonderful, thought-provoking week that left me feeling buzzed up and raring to do science!

I thoroughly enjoyed discussing the role of observational astronomy in theoretical cosmology with you, Brian Schmidt, Valeria and Chanda [other young researchers], but as an observer, I have some questions for you regarding the role of observers in today’s world of astronomy.

But I guess I should first introduce myself.

My name is Minnie and I’ve just started a post-doc at the NRAO in Socorro, New Mexico. I submitted my PhD on the cosmic evolution of radio sources in April and will (hopefully!) graduate from the University of Tasmania in December this year. New Mexico is somewhat different from Tassie, but I’m really enjoying it here –- especially being based at the array operations centre for the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA).

This brings me to why I do astronomy: I love observing. I love the process of deciding to ‘look’ at something, setting up the telescope, waiting in breathless anticipation for the photons to hit the CCD, or watching the cross-correlations dance across a computer screen. I even love reducing the data, knowing that shortly I will be seeing something no-one has ever seen and using it to answer my science questions.

Interacting with young researchers at the Lindau Meeting made me realize there exists a dichotomy of sorts between ‘observers’ and ‘theorists’ — something I had previously only been peripherally aware of. The PhD environment I’d grown up in was one where I was taught not to differentiate between observers and theorists, and instead recognize that one cannot conduct science through pure observation. Equally, theories need observations to be grounded. Now I realize this point-of-view, while prevalent amongst observers, does not appear to be shared by some theorists.

What do you think is the relationship between observers and theorists? Should there even be such a divide? Can I be an astronomer simply because I enjoy using telescopes and knowing them intimately so that I can push them to their limits?

What do you think will be the most important result to come from the James Webb Space Telescope? Will the most important results be driven by predicted theories or by observations that yield completely unexpected results that we couldn’t possibly have known had we not observed something new, as was the case with the Hubble Deep Field?

I love my new job. Learning all about the VLA is so much fun, but now that I’m starting to get used to the fact that I’m no longer a student, I’m trying to figure out what my role is in the world of astronomy.

Clear skies,

Minnie Yuan Mao

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