In this series of posts, we sit down with a few of the keynote speakers of the 230th AAS meeting to learn more about them and their research. You can see a full schedule of their talks here!
He teaches cosmology to Tibetan Monks, has written numerous books and somehow still found the time to get 24 projects’ worth of observations on the one and only Hubble telescope! Chris Impey is one astonishing astronomer.
Born in Edinburgh, Impey is a distinguished professor based in the astronomy department at the University of Arizona. His #AAS230 plenary talk “Our Future in Space” will be…out of this world.
Impey describes his childhood as “transatlantic”, attending numerous schools whilst growing up in places like London and New York. Until high school he wasn’t really interested in science and preferred writing and studying history. Luckily for the 13,000 students enrolled into his online course, Impey decided to study Physics at university. During his undergraduate degree, he was lucky enough to spend two summers working for CERN — this is where he well and truly “caught the Physics bug”. However particle physics and its almost industrial-like nature was not to be, as Impey moved to Edinburgh to complete a PhD in the more “malleable” and equally “exciting” field of astronomy.
Observational astronomy is clearly a passion for Impey. Having made “spectacular observations” using the great telescopes of Hawaii and Chile, Impey’s current astronomical research evolves around active galaxies. He uses big surveys like COSMOS to investigate the relationship between galaxies and their central black hole. It’s interesting because there’s a huge amount of variation in how an individual black hole will grow, yet there are clear correlations between black holes and the properties of their host galaxy. “It’s a kind of puzzle how populations have predictable properties, whereas individual objects do not”. These days Impey spends a lot of time pursuing his love of teaching by researching and publishing papers in education. “That’s a different kind of research with a big learning curve”, but it has been exciting to do.
Impey notes that one tendency of young researchers is to want and almost need to plan your career and constantly think about what must be done to get that next job. Impey warns against doing this and suggests it’s better to “have your eyes pretty wide open” , whilst “looking to the side for opportunities that you might not have expected”. Impey’s first postdoc took him from Scotland to an observer’s paradise – Hawaii. It was just “something that came up”.
A second piece of advice for the science communicators out there is if you “have that interest, then “try hard and pursue it”. Whether this is through spending “a lot of time and energy on teaching”, something that should be important to every researcher, or by writing popular science articles or keeping a science blog. Science communication is “more important than ever”. It’s not a “safe sort of career path”, but Impey assures that many have made their way, became successful and more importantly are very happy with their chosen field.
Impey will be taking the audience on a journey from the first rocket, to our first steps on the Moon, and beyond to what the future might hold for space travel. We’re living in an exciting age, where the space industry is on the cusps of “taking off literally and metaphorically” thanks not only to government programs like NASA, but is being propelled by the likes of Elon Musk and Richard Branson. “50,000 years after leaving Africa for the first time, we might leave the planet for the first time”. Don’t get left behind by attending Impey’s 11:40am talk on Tuesday 6th June at #AAS230!