The other day, I was interviewing Harvey Richer, a professor of astronomy at the University of British Columbia. He and one of his former Ph.D. students, Jason Kalirai, recently discovered the most distant star clusters ever observed. The press material included a lovely image of the clusters, so I jumped on the story. After all, one of the things that drives the popularization of astronomy — and, at least in part, subscriptions to Astronomy magazine — are the pretty pictures.
But it's also important to highlight the scientific value of the eye candy. What does this thing out there in space teach us? Why is it important to the science of astronomy?
I asked Richer a question along these lines. He started to answer enthusiastically. My follow-up question made it pretty clear I didn't understand what he was talking about. Very politely and generously, he asked me that question that scientists so often ask science journalists: "What is your background?" Or, less politely, he might have asked: "Do you know anything about globular clusters?"
Often people assume that science writers are experts on all the fields they cover-and some, indeed, are. The collected astronomical knowledge of my colleagues here at Astronomy could fill libraries. (Or, at minimum, the secondhand book rack at the Salvation Army.)
But many of us are generalists. I have spent my career foraging at the candy store of science. How does human memory work? (Mmmmm. Yummy.) Can we predict volcanic eruptions and earthquakes? (Delicious!) When will the planet's oil supply run dry? (Finger-licking good!) I've written about many different fields of science without becoming an expert in any particular one.
One tasty nugget I have not nibbled in some years is the importance of discovering distant globular clusters. Dr. Richer kindly satisfied my hunger by explaining why distant globular clusters can help us to further understanding of the evolution of stars and galaxies. By observing globular clusters in other galaxies, we travel back in cosmological time.
It was fresh. It was interesting. It was all new again.
I say "again" because astronomy, of all the sciences, was my first love. As an adolescent, I went head over heels for stars years before any girl let me get within a nanometer's distance of so much as holding her hand. So I kept my hands full of star charts and my trusty dime-store refracting telescope, not to mention my monthly copy of Astronomy magazine. I must have known something about globular clusters back then. Yes, I'm sure I did. I just can't remember what.
I leave you with this thought as I begin my 10th day as an editor of Astronomy. I'm very glad to be here. It's a privilege to be able to write for you and perhaps share a bit of my own rekindled sense of wonder about the cosmos. Despite all the fascinating insights of astronomical research, it's the sense of wonder that makes us keep looking up at the sky — and searching for billion-year-old globular clusters.