Building Astronomy in Texas

This weekend, the Texas A&M Astronomy Group will host the statewide Building Astronomy in Texas (BAT) workshop within the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy on the Texas A&M University campus. At present, the tentative RSVP list includes more than 80 astronomers, students and research staff representing 18 different Texas universities.

Arguably a sweet spotlight by any standard, for us and the state, but I contend it’s merely an extrapolation of what the Texas A&M astronomers do best: learn about and from each other and then use that new knowledge to grow as people, as a program and as a profession.

One doesn’t have to look far to find a relevant case in point if not precursor: August 28. Apparently, it’s an annual tradition for the ASTRO group to host an all-day symposium the Friday before the fall semester starts. It’s organized and chaired by postdoctoral students, and each member of the group — from tenured professors to undergraduates — has the opportunity to give a 10-minute talk on his or her current research. This year, they ended the day with a new tradition: a group-wide dinner at Darren DePoy and Jennifer Marshall’s house. Check out this recap video for additional information on the symposium and further insight via first-person interviews:

When I was explaining to my husband about what they had planned for that day, from the postdoc-chaired symposium and group-wide presenting opportunity to the family-style dinner (not at a restaurant, mind you, but at the deputy director’s house), I said it reminded me of exactly how Bob Johnson –- er, make that Dr. Robert E. Johnson, AIA — treated me during one of my past professional lives in the Texas A&M College of Architecture. Bob himself interviewed and later hired me as a staff member in the CRS Center, established in 1990 by legendary Houston architecture firm CRS (Caudill Rowlett Scott) as one of the then-seven research centers and institutes within Texas A&M Architecture. I knew nothing of Bob nor the field, yet from Day 1, he gave me full access to every facet of his operation, from the financials to the server records to the CRS firm archives. I saw exactly what he saw, because he saw us as equals. What an empowering view! Yes, it’s a calculated management risk, but wow, the rewards that can be realized for all parties when that trust is there, real and reciprocated.

The Texas A&M ASTRO group is there, and it’s as powerfully compelling and exciting to me as learning about the historic rise of another Texas juggernaut on the architectural scene was, then and now. One resulted in two chapters in a book, and the sky’s the limit for the other. Take it from someone who didn’t know a lick about architecture or astronomy.

Texas, Our Texas

“When I moved here to East Texas over three years ago, I was a little homesick. I grew up in California and also worked and lived in Chile most of my life, and I never lived far from the ocean. Last year when I was in West Texas, I met an elderly woman who had grown up on a ranch west of Eldorado. She said that whenever she leaves Texas, she too feels homesick — not for the ocean but for the sky. I asked her why. She said that growing up on a ranch, especially at night, you have the sky from one horizon to the other horizon, and anywhere she goes, she feels penned in by city lights, fences and city buildings.

“The sky is really a part of the history of Texas. It is in our flag. It is in our music. It is really in the soul of Texas. And I am proud to be here at Texas A&M, helping to bring the sky back to this part of Texas.”

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

On December 4, 2009, Texas A&M University astronomer Nicholas B. Suntzeff put the icing on the celebratory cake with this absolutely perfect big-picture analogy, an excerpt of his remarks presented as part of the official dedication of the George P. Mitchell ’40 Physics Building and the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy.

Nearly five years later, I think his grandiose words are just as fitting in capturing the magnificence of another stately project, Between Heaven and Texas, executed by another master of observation, Wyman Meinzer, the Official State Photographer of Texas whose life’s work involves appreciating and accentuating the Lone Star State’s beauty and sharing it with the world. If you haven’t already had the pleasure, meet Wyman and his most recent, resplendent take on Texas, our Texas.

Wyman Meinzer – Between Heaven And Texas from Wyman Meinzer on Vimeo.

Tradition in Action

I learned something new about the late George P. Mitchell ’40 last month.

Yeah, that George Mitchell, the same entrepreneurial Texas A&M University distinguished alumnus, energy pioneer, visionary philanthropist and larger-than-life Texan I’ve been covering at least once every six months or so for more than a decade, typically in relation to a new gift or result of a previous gift to Texas A&M Physics and Astronomy.

Amazingly enough, I only interviewed him once during that entire time, in 2005 for the cover story for the College of Science’s first and only issue of DISCOVERY magazine, which fell victim soon afterward to budget cuts. And truth be told, that solitary occasion was more of a sitting-down-to-breakfast-at-the-same-table group scenario anyway.

The 2005 interview. Yes, that's my fuzzy, lilac-colored shoulder in the right foreground. And the crepes were just as fabulous as then-Physics Department Head Ed Fry said they would be, too. (Credit: John Lewis / Texas A&M Foundation.)

The 2005 interview. Yes, that’s my fuzzy, lilac-colored shoulder in the right foreground. And the crepes were just as fabulous as then-Physics Department Head Ed Fry said they would be, too. (Credit: John Lewis / Texas A&M Foundation.)

Bottom line: I thought I had read if not written the proverbial book on him. Go figure I was wrong and that I’d missed one of his best stories yet — one involving a 60-year Aggie tradition, at that. I think it’s one of my new favorites right up there with the Aggie Ring, Muster and Midnight Yell.

THIS JUST IN: For the past 60 years, legendary Houston businessman and oil and gas pioneer George P. Mitchell '40 has been honoring Aggie petroleum engineers with same inscribed gold watch he received as the top senior in 1940.

THIS JUST IN: For the past 60 years, legendary Houston businessman and oil and gas pioneer George P. Mitchell ’40 has been honoring Aggie petroleum engineers with same inscribed gold watch he received as the top senior in 1940.

Beyond bearing all the hallmarks of his humble, behind-the-scenes style, the news came with a twist befitting his sharp business mind and quick-witted side. In contrast to his generosity to Texas A&M Physics and Astronomy, Mr. Mitchell was notorious for deflecting those who encouraged him to consider supporting worthwhile causes in engineering — not because he didn’t see their value, but because, as a numbers/logistics man, he saw how many prosperous Texas A&M engineers there were besides him to champion such efforts. His classic fallback response on such occasions? “Talk to Claytie” — a playful reference to Texas A&M graduate Clayton W. Williams, Jr. ’54, president and chief executive officer of Midland-based Clayton Williams Energy Inc. and former Texas Republican gubernatorial nominee.

Alas, the ultimate secret within a secret: He’d been supporting the top Aggie engineers in his home department all along. Well played, Mr. Mitchell; well played.

On that sunny summer 2005 morning in The Woodlands, I was in awe. I still am. I guess wonders the likes of George P. Mitchell ’40 never cease, even in death. Talk about breaking news that knows no embargo.

GPM

Game-Changing Gambles

The Giant Magellan Telescope picked up Texas-sized momentum last month with a $50 million pledge from the University of Texas. Although it wasn’t our announcement, I found myself nearly as excited as I was on July 22, 2011, when I received the following email from Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff:

Shana, I don’t know if we can announce this yet, but this is a huge achievement! Ask Darren about when this can be made news.

The following news, relayed by Darren DePoy, from the latest GMT Board meeting included the following:

“The GMT1 primary mirror is now at 50nm rms figure. The goal is ~30nm (I think), but even at this level it is the best figured/polished large aspheric optic ever made and probably could be used as is. This is extremely good news!”

This is fantastic! The technology developed by Roger Angel has worked, and we now have a green light to start the other mirrors.

This made my day!

cheers nick

(Credit: Giant Magellan Telescope Organization.)

(Credit: Giant Magellan Telescope Organization.)

I’m definitely no scientist, but I’ve always found the GMT’s design beautifully intriguing and absolutely genius because of its originality and flexibility. The scientists behind it had the forethought (no doubt because they knew just how hard a financial sell it would be) to make it operational in stages, allowing for results (pretty sweet ones) even if it never raises enough funds to be fully completed. The fourth mirror represents that critical stage — the turning point. With UT’s pledge, it’s as good as cast, ensuring that, even if the worst comes to pass, the world at least will have more than leftover parts and a shell of a dream (see Texas Superconducting Super Collider) to show for all the hard work and previous investment.

In January, the GMT cleared two major hurdles, passing both its detailed design review and being approved to enter the construction phase. Of course, approval is one thing; having the financing to do so is quite another.

They say timing is everything, and Texas’ bold move couldn’t have happened at a better one. I can’t help but think of George P. Mitchell ’40 and how happy he would be to finally see the day when his home state got off the dime (figuratively and literally), following his own $33.25 million lead in that vital international leadership regard as he saw it.

Mitchell believed in the GMT when few else beyond the project’s originators did. Thank goodness for people like him — an individual not only with the financial wherewithal but also the vision to see the GMT’s potential just as clearly as the scientists behind it. Truly remarkable and heady stuff. And all the more fitting that it’s a pledge from one of his home institutions that likely puts it over the construction hump. Whoop!

So many said it would never get this far. And that such a risky design relying on not one but seven parabolic mirrors that put the double-capital Ps in precision polishing (in addition to being unprecedentedly huge) would never work.

I think as the GMT enters construction, its marvel will become more apparent. It’s hard to fundraise in the abstract, long-term, but once the project’s partners have a tangible object and definable, measurable progress underway, it will be far easier to visualize the possibility-laden bandwagon onto which these institutions are imploring donors as well as global science to jump.

Oh, and that first mirror and all its precision-polishing-representing-pioneering-scientific-achievement glory that Dr. Suntzeff was so ecstatic about in his email? It’s named for Mr. Mitchell. Oh, the places it will go and things it will help see!

The Giant Magellan Telescope's first two mirrors, pictured last August within the University of Arizona's Steward Mirror Lab. Known as GMT1 and GMT2, they are named for George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell, respectively. GMT1/"George" (left) is packaged and ready to head to Chile -- a feat of logistics and exercise in trust by any stretch! Each of the GMT's seven mirrors will travel by truck down Interstate 10 to a port in California, then via ship to a port near Las Campanas, Chile, and finally via another truck up a mountain in the Atacama Desert near the existing twin Magellan telescopes. By comparison, the mirrors for those are 6.5 meters in diameter, while each GMT mirror measures 8.4 meters.

The Giant Magellan Telescope’s first two mirrors, pictured last August within the University of Arizona’s Steward Mirror Lab. Known as GMT1 and GMT2, they are named for George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell, respectively.
GMT1/”George” (left) is packaged and ready to head to Chile — a feat of logistics and exercise in trust by any stretch! Each of the GMT’s seven mirrors will travel by truck down Interstate 10 to a port in California, then via ship to a port near Las Campanas, Chile, and finally via another truck up a mountain in the Atacama Desert near the existing twin Magellan telescopes. By comparison, the mirrors for those are 6.5 meters in diameter, while each GMT mirror measures 8.4 meters.