An Interview with Rob Irion, Author of "The Planet Hunters"

Rob Irion spoke with Amy Crawford about his article, "The Planet Hunters"

What led to your interest in astronomy?

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My great aunt, Ruth Foster, nurtured my interest in science as a young child and took me to the planetaria in New York and Philadelphia. I loved stepping on the scales at the old Hayden Planetarium to see how much I would weigh on Jupiter and Mars, and there was a fantastic orrery in the ornate lobby showing the relative positions of all the planets.

My aunt also gave me wonderful books on astronomy by Isaac Asimov, Walter Sullivan, Tim Ferris, and others. Later in high school, Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" series on PBS convinced me that I wanted to study astronomy in college. It was my major at MIT.

Did you have a telescope as a kid?

Actually, no. I always just used my eyes and, on occasion, binoculars. I grew up in northern Vermont, so it wasn't unusual for us to see the aurora borealis. And the skies were wonderfully clear, especially in the winter. I did a lot of lying in the grass or snow at night, watching for random meteors, and letting my imagination run wild. Orion (one letter different from my last name) was and still is my favorite place to stare.

What drew you to this story in particular?

I worked as a public relations officer and the campus science writer at UC Santa Cruz for many years and got to know several of the astronomers involved with the planet-hunting project from the early days. It's been fantastic to see the number of planets outside our solar system go from zero a little more than a decade ago to 200 today. These discoveries were made by real people with the technical acumen to design such delicate instruments from scratch. They can watch stars moving toward or away from us at the speed that you and I walk or jog down the street. It's a remarkable feat, so describing it for a general audience was a great and fun challenge.

Was it moving to be in the observatory looking up at the stars?

I've been to many observatories, so I no longer have that raw feeling of awe about the sky and the telescopes we have devised to peer into its depths. What's more fascinating now are the guts of the observing instruments—the precise way that astronomers can parse starlight, and the often-cramped spaces within which the instruments must fit. It's optical wizardry under very demanding conditions. But the astronomers themselves do describe the big observatories as cathedrals, and inside the vast dark dome, it's easy to understand why.

Why is this work so important, when it doesn't have any immediate or practical implications? If you were trying to get funding for McCarthy and his colleagues, how would you argue for it?

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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