02 February 2018

Behind a Scientist - David H. Hathaway


Today I will present another installment of Behind the Scientist, this time featuring David H. Hathaway, an astrophysicist.
David received his Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the University of Colorado, Boulder.
He worked at National Center for Atmospheric Research, National Solar Observatory and ended up at NASA. He served as a head of Solar Physics Branch at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center from 1996 to 2010. He is also an inventor and holder of the patent for VISAR. More details you can find on his biography hosted by NASA.

When did you first get interested in science?

Like most children, I was very curious about the natural world around me.
Before the age of 12, I collected bugs, rocks, fossils, seashells, etc.
My mother and father were very supportive, giving me birthday presents that included a magnifying glass, a microscope, and a chemistry set.
My mother was a kindergarten teacher and my father loved the outdoors - taking us on frequent camping trips and picnics in the woods.

What motivated you to become a scientist?

I knew I wanted to be a scientist by age 10 but didn’t zero in on astronomy until age 12.
I read voraciously - both science and math.
One book, in particular, introduced me to astronomy - “The Stars: A New Way to See Them” by H. A. Rey (the author of the Curious George books).
That led me to buy a small, collapsible telescope with interchangeable eyepiece lenses from my weekly allowance (the ad for the telescope was on a bubble gum wrapper).
I continued to read everything I could find on astronomy in particular.
Before I went to college I was most interested in stellar evolution - how stars are formed, burn their nuclear fuel for millions or billions of years, and then die - some to simply fade away, some to die spectacular deaths and leave behind white dwarfs, neutron stars, and (at the time, just maybe) black holes.
I followed this through college and into graduate school.
During that time I thought the Sun was the most boring star in the sky.
My opinion was changed by a graduate-level course on the Sun (bought by Donald Billings) where I learned about solar activity (flares and prominence eruptions), the solar activity (sunspot) cycle, and the Sun’s hot outer atmosphere - things I wouldn’t have thought could be happening on other stars.
I also learned that we can observe other things on the Sun that are critical to our understanding of other stars and how they evolve.
I was hooked.

Can you give an example of how you use your scientific training or science in your everyday life?

My scientific training helps me to separate fact from fiction, not just in science but in everyday news and in particular in politics and advertising.
One of my scientific colleagues had a bumper sticker that read “Question Authority.”
It’s a good thing to remember, not just in science but everyday life.
Critical thinking is key.

How important is science for you?

Although I’m retired now and no longer get paid to do science, I still do research nonetheless.
I still want to try to answer questions that remain unanswered.
I don’t have to be paid to do it.
I am still thrilled by moments of small discoveries.
Science, as science, is still very much a part of my life but, more importantly, science and the scientific method helps me understand what’s going on around me.

Fun incident from your research work?

One incident that I will always remember was a moment of discovery with a graduate student and an undergraduate summer intern.
We were trying to find evidence for large, global sized flows on the Sun’s surface whose existence was theorized some 40 years earlier but no compelling evidence had been found.
We had the best data available at the time but didn’t know exactly how to proceed.
Over the summer we had tried two or three different methods of data analysis to no avail.
We devised another and ran the analysis program overnight.
When we got together the next morning it was clear we had something, as the day went on we knew we had finally cracked the case after 40 years.
High-fives all around. It was particularly fun to share the moment with these two young researchers.

What do you think about the importance of science for humans?

Without science we would not be humans.

What do you think about current state of science?

I am encouraged by the number of young people I see entering science but am discouraged by the difficulty in finding jobs and funding.
It was definitely easier when I was starting. Lack of funding was the final stroke that led to my own retirement.

What do you think about society's attitude towards science?

I am disheartened by the attacks on science in the political arena.
This is painfully seen in the disregard for broadly-based scientific opinion on global warming in particular, but it extends to many other areas (vaccines, GMOs) and is not exclusive to one political party or another.

What improvements would you like to see?

I would like to see more respect for science and scientists - our ultimate quest is for truth without regard to politics, nationality, race, or gender.

What do you think the average person should do?

Become science literate, read publications like “Physics Today” or “Scientific American.”

What do you think what average scientist should do?

Speak up, speak out, publish, publish, publish.
The internet and social media provide a new and powerful platform for this.

Tell a bit about your favorite pass time activity?

I’ve taken up the game of golf in retirement. There is so much physics involved in the game and a lot of science involved in playing it (trial and error and error and error).
While golf has been characterized as a “good walk spoiled” it’s still great to be outdoors and walking through some very beautiful countryside.
The scientist in me knows how to play the game perfectly, the muscles just don’t have the right memories.

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