Text Size

Climate Scientist Compton Tucker Leads Yearly Science Trek in Turkey
Conversations with Goddard banner

Climate scientist Compton Tucker leads a space archaeology team every July to conduct archaeological geophysical survey field work in Gordian, Turkey.

Name: Compton Tucker a.k.a. Jim, Jimmy, Jimbo
Title: Senior Earth Scientist
Formal Job Classification: Physical Scientist
Organization He Works For: Code 610 Earth Sciences Division, Science and Exploration Directorate

What is most interesting about your role here at Goddard?

Each day, we process large amounts of climate data from NASA’s two Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectrometers (MODIS) instruments, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s and the European Space Agency’s Meteorological Operations Satellite Program’s (MetOps) Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) instruments, and Landsat.

I primarily study climate using satellite data, but I also conduct field work in Africa, Central Asia, and South America, including the Amazon and the high Andes. The past several years, I’ve usually spent the month of July doing field work at Gordian in central Turkey where, in 333 BC, Alexander the Great cut the famous Gordian knot in an attempt to fulfill the prophesy that whoever untied this knot would become the ruler of Asia. Gordian was also the home of King Midas, whom
Photo of Compton Tucker
Photo of Compton Tucker. Credit: NASA
Greek historians reported had the golden touch and ears like a donkey. The translation of the “golden touch” really means that he was diplomatic. No gold has ever been found in Gordian.

At Gordion, we walk several miles a day doing geophysical survey work. July is the peak of the Mediterranean summer; it’s hot and dry, usually without any clouds in the sky. We eat breakfast from 5-5:30 a.m., work between 6–9:00 a.m., eat what’s called “second breakfast” at 9:00 a.m., work until 1:00 p.m., eat lunch, work in the lab until it cools off, and then work outside again from 4–7:00 p.m. The cocktail hour starts at 7:00 p.m. on the second story balcony of the dig house or Excavation House where we watch the Sun set and discuss interesting occurrences such as “why did the red car stop on the road” or some other local event. It can be pretty dull. We have dinner at 8:00 p.m. Thursdays are our day off because it is the local town’s market day, but we usually stay at the site on Thursdays and work anyway. We do this six or seven days a week for three weeks after which everyone is worn out and ground down. Then we take annual leave for a few days, go someplace cooler, take it easy, and sleep.

Geophysical survey people are among some of the hardest working people on archaeological sites, other than the workmen who are actually excavating. I’m fortunate that the heat doesn’t bother me, probably because I’m from New Mexico and got used to hot, dry weather there.

Almost all scientific work now is done by teams with the exception of theoretical work, and our NASA space archaeology work is no exception. I had a team of three people working with me in Gordian. We were few among many as about 50 others were working there too. People from Turkey, Greece, Britain, Germany, France, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Italy, Argentina, and other places also participate in this University of Pennsylvania’s University Museum project. A Turkish representative from their Department of Antiquities is present on site to supervise all activities.

We were doing geophysical survey work using ground-penetrating radar and magnetometers to look at areas and understand what is beneath the surface without destroying anything. Archeologists then use these data to determine where they want to excavate. To take the kinds of measurements we need requires four people working together simultaneously. We lay out a 50x50 meter grid, and then we survey that area. One person moves the instrument over the area in passes similar to how you mow a lawn. The other people move lines with distances marked off on them showing where to go.

Our team ate our meals with everyone else and we slept in the same Excavation House, usually 3 to 4 people to a room. The site is within a large, walled compound that includes storage facilities and laboratories. All the other people were doing different things; our Goddard team and a German team were the only ones doing geophysical work. There is a premium on people who are easy to get along with because everyone is in close proximity, working hard, and there are only three showers and four bathrooms. Three years ago, there was only a two-stall outhouse and two rudimentary showers consisting of a barrel on the roof with water warmed by the sun during the day. We’re lucky to have a good cook for most of our meals, a former Turkish Army cook.

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

Perhaps two of the coolest things I’ve done since coming to Goddard involved instrument changes. First, Stan Schnieder and I convinced NOAA to reconfigure one of their meteorological instruments so it could measure photosynthesis from space. This reconfiguration has been in use ever since 1981 on a series of weather satellites. As a result of this modification, data from this instrument are much more useful to many more people for many scientific and humanitarian purposes. We now have a thirty-year data set from these satellites that’s invaluable for global change research. Second, I helped change the Landsat thematic mapper bands, which resulted in dropping a redundant near-infrared band, which then made possible a second band in the shortwave infrared. This change was much more useful for many areas of research and applications. We now have almost thirty years of data from these Landsat instruments

What makes Goddard a great place to work?

Over my 35 years here, almost all of the people I have met have been great people who work hard and want to accomplish wonderful things for NASA. Whatever their discipline—science, engineering, procurement, projects, or administration—almost everyone enjoys working here and works hard. For me, it’s a dream job and has been since the first week I arrived. It beats by several light years working in a bank or driving a truck for a greenhouse, two of my former jobs.

Is there some place in the world that you want to visit, or some place you have been and want to go back?

I would like to go to Greenland and Antarctica, because I’m envious of my colleagues in cryospheric research who get to go there all the time!

Related Link:

› More Conversations With Goddard
Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.