Astronomy Professor Redfield Participates in NASA Panel on IBEX
stronomy Seth Redfield participated in NASA’s press conference on its recent findings on the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX). The Argus sat down with Redfield to discuss his part as an outside expert in the NASA research, as well his appreciation for music and Wesleyan.
The Argus: Could you explain what your research was about?
Seth Redfield: I have used the Hubble space telescope and other ground-based telescopes to measure gas and dust that directly surrounds our solar system, and some of [NASA’s] new results were directly related to the research that I’ve done. They need a different measurement of the same material, and it turns out that their measurement and my measurement match up perfectly, whereas prior to that, earlier measurement made them look at odds with each other. So one of the exciting new results was that we resolved this mystery and we think we have a much better idea of the kind of material that the sun is plowing through right now.
A: What was it like being on the panel?
SR: I was a little nervous. I’m very used to talking in front of people about my research, but this is unlike any experience I’ve had before. It was like a TV studio where they powder your nose and dress rehearsals and such. It actually reminded me a lot of my musical career, performing a piece of music, and so it was a little nerve-wracking, but also exciting. It was a lot of fun to express how excited I am about this kind of work.
A: Will you be on any future panels?
SR: I’d love to do it again. We are always working at our research, and everyday we can get excited about new discoveries. They’re often very small, tiny steps, but every once in a while you participate in something more remarkable than normal. I hope I get to do it again.
A: What was it like working with the other panelists?
SR: I was certainly struck by other scientists on the panel. I’ve known their work longer than I’ve actually known them, and they’ve been working in the studio much longer than I have, so I was thrilled to interact with them and talk to them in detail. I learned a lot from them, so it certainly helped me think about my future in that respect.
A: Why did you choose astrophysics as a career?
SR: As an undergraduate I was clearly conflicted. I had this dream of music that I was really serious about, but I had always grown up being excited about astronomy and physics. So as an undergraduate I did this double degree program, where I was clearly trying to live both worlds and explore them. The summer after my sophomore year I applied to an REU program, a “Research Experience for Undergraduates” program. There are many of them at national observatories and universities. Wesleyan participates in an REU program that we host right now, in fact. That summer I participated in one in Tucson, Arizona, at the National Solar Observatory. Just a couple weeks into it, I remember looking around and being so amazed and excited about the people who were working there and the work I was doing—it really had a deep impact. I was hooked right then and I did a summer research project every summer thereafter. Halfway through my third year I realized that I was going to go on to grad school in astrophysics and I wasn’t going to go on professionally in music.
A: Music seems to be a big part of your life. Do you find similarities between astrophysics and music?
SR: I do. Music and lots of artistic forms follow very specific rules, and they can be very mathematical in some ways, and often the interesting part is how you manipulate around those rules. Science is not all that different, where you have mathematical models and you’re manipulating or exploring around them in creative ways to try and understand something at a deeper level. Also, in both cases it’s a very personal kind of experience. You are continuously as an individual confronting limits of your musical abilities, to move your fingers or put expressions to music, and as a scientist you are again as an individual confronting your ignorance about whatever phenomenon you’re studying and pushing that boundary.
A: How is teaching and researching at Wesleyan different from your previous experiences?
SR: Before Wesleyan, I was a postdoc at University of Texas-Austin, where I was doing one hundred percent research. At Wesleyan, I love that there are many facets to my professional life. Cutting-edge research is one of them, and I’m very happy that I can pursue that, but I’m also very happy teaching classes and mentoring students, undergrads and graduate students. I find it extremely rewarding. Like I mentioned earlier, when I was an undergrad, research experience was eye-opening for me, so I’m very happy to be involved in that at Wesleyan.