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Bernie Rauscher - Astrophysicist by Day, Farmer by Night
December 3, 2013

[image-51]Name: Bernie Rauscher
Title: Principal Investigator for the James Webb Space Telescope Near Infrared Spectrograph Detector Subsystem
Formal Job Classification: Astrophysicist
Organization: Code 665, Observational Cosmology Laboratory, Astrophysics Science Division, Science and Exploration Directorate

Astrophysicist Bernie Rauscher explains what it takes to be a good scientist.

What do you do and what is most interesting about your role here at Goddard? How do you help support Goddard’s mission?

I am an experimental astrophysicist, which means that I build and use instruments for astrophysics science research. My specialty is the detectors that convert light into electrical signals that we can then study using computers. JWST has no fewer than 18 infrared detectors of various kinds and I am the lead Goddard scientist for all of them. On a typical day, I might advise the JWST Senior Project Scientist, John Mather, on how to best use JWST’s detectors for science observations, run some tests with a lab team here at Goddard or work with other JWST detector scientists at our partner organizations including the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, the University of Arizona and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Although I am Goddard’s lead, each of our partners building a science instrument also has a detector lead. It’s a big, worldwide team effort.

I have been working with JWST since 1999, and came to Goddard in 2003 because I wanted to help build JWST.

My main scientific interests are dark matter and dark energy, both of which fall under the rubric of cosmology. To study these phenomena, I build infrared space instruments. The infrared detects heat here on Earth and in the “nearby” universe. At great distances, though, the further away something is, the redder it is as a consequence of the expansion of the universe. This effect is called redshifting the light. Imagine what happens when you hear a train whistle—it sounds high pitched when the train approaches but low pitched after the train has passed you and is speeding away. While Hubble emphasizes visible wavelengths to study physical processes, JWST will use infrared wavelengths, which, due to redshifting, are better for looking at things that are farther away.

What do you hope JWST’s infrared detectors will discover?

When you do these big missions, you have lots of planned science that builds on what is already known. I plan to focus on the high redshift universe of distant galaxies, how they came to be and how they evolved up to the present day. I’m particularly interested in the relationship between the galaxies that we see and the clumps of dark matter from which they are thought to have formed. I am also interested in seeing what the first clumps of stars to light up in the young universe looked like. I want to learn more about how stars are born and planets like our Earth form and evolve.

But the most interesting discoveries of all are likely to be things we have not thought of! A classic example is the discovery of cosmic acceleration in the late 1990s, which was completely unexpected. Hubble played a very important role in this. For reasons that are still completely unknown, the cosmic expansion sped up not so long ago when measured as a fraction of the age of the universe. One potential explanation is that a previously unknown “dark energy” powers this acceleration. Other potential explanations involve modifying Einstein’s theory of gravity commonly referred to as the theory of general relativity. The key point, though, is that the phenomenon of cosmic acceleration was a complete surprise before it was discovered using some of the world’s largest telescopes and Hubble.

As someone who builds and uses observatories, can you explain what constitutes a good, scientific observation?

One very important part of it is the hypothesis that you are testing has to be falsifiable, meaning that you can in principal do an experiment or make an observation to prove it wrong. A good, classic example is the question from antiquity: Is the Earth flat? You can make measurements to prove that hypothesis wrong. A key point about science is that we never prove anything to be completely right; we only prove things to be wrong. Sir Isaac Newton was not right, nor was Albert Einstein right. Einstein did not prove Newton wrong; he just provided a new theory that explained things better at that time. That’s because Einstein’s theory explains everything that Newton’s did and, in addition, explained other observations that were not even available to Newton. To a good scientist, all theories are always provisional. If somebody makes the right measurement, as, for example, Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess did when they discovered cosmic acceleration, then an accepted theory could be proven to be in need of revision.

What characteristics does a good scientist have?

First and foremost, a good scientist has to have an open mind. He or she has to be observant. You follow nature’s lead. Nature leads the dance. This will put you on the path where, if you are fortunate and sufficiently creative, you’ll see or think of something new that will serve as the seed for scientific exploration. You need to be curious. Some scientists are intuitive, leap to hypotheses and then try to prove them out. Others are deductive, and work step by step to further their understanding. Some are hands on, building things in the lab with their hands. Others work exclusively with a computer. Still others deal purely with equations and mathematics. There is a very broad universe of ways of working as a scientist, but nature is always the boss.

What mind frame does a good scientist have?

A good scientist is always searching, looking for new things to do and better ways to do them. You’re scientifically dead if you become completely satisfied. Once you stop asking questions, then you stop looking for answers. Nature’s always got another trick up her sleeve.

What do you look for in a team member?

The kind of science that I do is a team sport. Excellent teamwork skills are essential. The qualities of a good team member depend on what I am trying to do. If I am hiring a young research scientist, then I’m looking for the ability to independently formulate questions, pursue an idea, construct experiments and tests to prove them out and write scientific papers. If, on the other hand, I’m putting together a detector building team, then I need a range of skills and talents. For building flight hardware, I need good engineers, good managers and good scientists. My list is in alphabetical order because I think all are equally important. If I’ve gathered the right team, then the whole really will be more than the sum of the parts. In any context, you need people who work well with others, can give and take criticism, and can share in the small successes and small failures along the way to ultimate success.

Everybody at Goddard likes to do high profile work. Everyone likes to say that they work for NASA. This is a given from top to bottom. You want people who are genuinely excited about space exploration and research.

Why did you become an astrophysicist?

My grandfathers greatly influenced me. My father’s father was a machinist and later a popular substitute teacher in the Montgomery County (Maryland) public school system. He was keenly interested in science and was constantly posing little mathematical puzzles and questions (in addition to always being willing to play a game of catch). He often told me stories about Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Marie Curie and folks like that.

My mother’s father was a senior scientist. He gave me a microscope when I was less than 10-years-old plus some nice big lenses and other pieces of surplus lab equipment. I was building periscopes and telescopes so young that I cannot remember when I started. By the age of ten, it was a given that I would do something in the scientific realm.

Were you a good student?

No and yes. Up until about ninth grade, I did very well on things that I wanted to do, but I did poorly on things that I did not want to do. Early on, I was most interested in basketball, but I also built flying model rockets. I taught myself a lot of math and science, well beyond what I learned in school, because I wanted to understand my rockets and make them better. Since I cared about math and science, I always got high marks. But, since I didn’t care about English or history, I got middling grades in those subjects. In high school, I met a group of high-achieving friends and started to get good grades in all subjects.

What is the coolest thing you’ve ever done as part of your job at Goddard?

On our little hallway, we have some of the world’s experts in what I do and what interests me most. We rattle ideas off of each other constantly. It’s very rough and tumble, like back in graduate school, but it’s an environment that tests ideas out and generates new ones quickly.

Other than the current JWST telescope, what is the coolest telescope you ever built?

That would be the South Pole Infrared Explorer Telescope at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station. In the early 1990s, as a student, I went there three times and spent several months there each time. I saw a lot of penguins and leopard seals on the coast, but the only animals I saw at the actual South Pole were skuas, which are birds.

If you weren’t in your current profession, what would you be doing?

I would own a restaurant and be the chef, but that would involve getting up too early. When my father’s family came to the U.S. in the early 20th century, they ran restaurants. Almost as soon as I heard about the restaurants though, I heard how hard it was. At home, we all enjoy cooking, especially for friends, and eating well. I am the bread and pasta maker in our house. My long-time girlfriend Francesca and I make most of our bread from scratch.

Is there something surprising about you, your hobbies, interests or activities outside of work that people do not generally?

For the last three years, I have been a farmer. Francesca and I together with her sister live in a circa 1750 farmhouse in Howard County. We have 15 acres and keep four horses, three of which were inherited. We feed the horses every morning and every evening. We also have four cats. We have a good-sized vegetable garden with zucchinis, tomatoes, fennel, cardoons, various herbs and sunflowers. We have a bumper crop of wild raspberries at the moment.

We are constantly repairing the farmhouse. We repair, we don’t replace, and nothing is prefabricated from Home Depot. It’s very old school and all custom. I do a lot of the work myself.

If you were having a dinner party, who would you invite, living or dead?

I’d start with a pair of Goddard colleagues, John Mather and his wife Jane, and Harvey Moseley and his wife Sarah. This way there would be somebody to discuss it with later! Then I’d add Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo and Isaac Newton. I’ve always been an admirer of Jacques Cousteau, so I’d add him and his wife Simone. To round it out, I’d probably add Sophie Germain, who was a French mathematician. Among other things, the meal would include sesame bread, pane al sesamo.

Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

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Bernie Rauscher (right) with colleagues
Bernie Rauscher (right) stands near the JWST NIRSpec infrared detector test system. The Purple test dewar is visible through the cleanroom door. Standing with Bernie are Yiting Wen (left) and Brent Mott (center), also part of the JWST NIRSpec team.
Image Credit: 
NASA/W. Hrybyk
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Page Last Updated: December 3rd, 2013
Page Editor: Lynn Jenner