My Background, in and out of Astronomy

My fascination with astronomy dates back to the summer of 1963, a little kid in Southern California. I read a newspaper blurb in the L.A. Times about a solar eclipse coming in a week. They said the sun would have a round "bite" taken out of it by the moon and gave the exact time the eclipse would start and end. Of course, it happened just as calculated, and I was amazed that scientists could calculate the motions of the stars and planets and get it right. People, so far as I could tell, were not nearly so rational or understandable. I was intrigued, and perhaps another romantic aspect was that you studied the stars at night, when you had the outdoors to yourself and maybe even everyone else was asleep. I joined the AAVSO and measured variable star brightnesses, keeping charts on a couple of dozen stars - my favorite being the famous slow nova of 1967 - Nova Delphini - because you could never really know what it would do next. I was given a 2.4" refractor for Christmas and used it to count sunspots every day, keeping graphs and hoping to see the solar cycle slowly emerge.

In high school, my buddies in the high school astronomy club Eric, Bob "the Fisch" Fischer , and Pat "The Harve" Harvey got into lunar and grazing lunar occultations. We would pile into my or Pat's old VW bug (all 3 or 4 of us, with full astro and camping gear!) and head out into the Mojave Desert to where our calculations showed you could see a star pass along the dark polar regions of the moon and for a few minutes disappear and reappear behind the dark mountains and valleys. With our telescopes, shortwave radios and tape recorders, we'd be shouting "D!" and "R!" whenever the star flickered on or off, to great delight. These have scientific value in being the most precise way to tie the changing moon's orbit to the celestial coordinate frame, among other uses, and Bob and I would plot up our timings on hand-drawn graphs, to our endless admiration. But the most fun was in the adventure! We'd find where the graze path crossed some forsaken rocky dirt road in the middle of nowhere, and revel in the drama of having to fix the VW bug during the numerous desert breakdowns. And of course - get those graze D and R timings. I'd always write up an entertaining report of the adventure just for our amusement and retelling at the astro club meetings. (Today, that urge finds an outlet writing up travelogs of my modern day triathlon etc. adventures).

For college, I was eager to put some miles between me and home, and opted for the University of Arizona, which had an outstanding observational astronomy program. However, this was 1971 and after a year of taking classes, the faculty brought all the undergrad astro majors into the big lecture hall and told us "Get out now, before it's too late! Space science funding is dropping like a rock and there's too many astronomers and won't be near enough jobs. Maybe 1 in a 100 of you will get a job as an astronomer"). Pretty sobering, but given the end of the Apollo program to the moon, and the first of a brutal set of economic recessions starting - maybe worth listening to. I kept my love and still did my astro adventures, but changed my major to architecture. That lasted a year, then I switched to mathematics, where I graduated in the standard 4 years, with Honors. My senior thesis was developing and programming the mathematics of fluid flow in blood vessels, helping the department chair in some outside contract work for medical people. I had a minor in physics. As for paying for college - I was on my own. To support myself I did various things - first being a year as an engineering co-op student (6 months of work followed by 6 months of studies) for Yuma Proving Ground (yikes!), and then thanks to my high school friend Eric, got a job making Pirelli tires at B.F. Goodrich in downtown L.A. - a high paying union job. By working graveyard shifts for two summers, I was able to pay for most of my undergraduate costs. I stayed in the most spartan lowest-cost of the dorms for my 4 years - Hopi Lodge - a World War II era brick single story structure with metal bunks, a small desk, a light, and that was about it. Still, I remember my college years very fondly. It was finally here, at university, that I met stimulating classes and bright professors and felt I'd finally arrived at something bigger.

I stayed at U of A for my masters work. This was 1975 and economic stagflation and the oil crisis were the news. I needed to think about a job that could support me, and decided I liked engineering, and earned the Dean's Scholarship to pay for my first year of grad school in the College of Engineering. After 18 months, I had my masters in Mechanical Engineering. While I took all the usual mechanical classes, my real focus was on fluid flow, thermodynamics, and my Masters thesis was a publishable study on the production and transport of vorticity in turbulent flow over surfaces, again using numerical computer simulation codes I wrote. Time to hit the job market.

My highest paying offer was to go work in the oil industry using my fluid dynamics knowledge. But, it didn't appeal to me (and the present day Nolthenius would most certainly not be happy looking back on that, either). It also involved moving to Taft, a small oil town near Bakersfield. Might as well be Siberia, working for Darth Vader, are my present thoughts! Instead I made a much better decision - going to work in the aerospace industry in San Diego. I got a job as a thermodynamics engineer for the Atlas / Centaur space program at General Dynamics - Convair, designing and running thermal models for rocket and satellite missions. I was also the thermo man on the design team for the first space station (a big proposal which General Dynamics did not win, however). I lived down in Ocean Beach, in a funkly little duplex a stone's throw from the sandy beach with my girlfriend and our little dog Fleet (named after the first satellite mission I worked on: FleetSatComm). This is where I bought my first bicycle - a Nishiki International 10 speed - and enjoyed biking the 10 miles each day up to Kearney Mesa and the General Dynamics complex. But, astronomy still called... and after 2 years at GD, I had saved enough money to think I had some options. I wanted to return and get my PhD in astrophysics. I applied to and was accepted at Stanford University, and started there in Fall '78. Wow - that was an intellectual adventure - as I had a lot of catching up to do on graduate level physics: quantum mechanics, classical E&M, Hamiltonian dynamics, then Quantum Field theory, General Relativity, Stellar Structure, Cosmology... Each night I'd have homework sets to do. Every night, about 20 pages of handwritten calculations in Heisenberg matrices, Schroedinger's equation, Dirac's equation, expansions in spherical harmonics for real-world solutions... up till after midnight each night (a habit I continue to this day). I earned income by being a teaching assistant for Peter Sturrock's astronomy courses, and also as a research assistant at the Stanford Solar Observatory. Stanford had recently completed a wonderful little observatory for their lab classes, all wood inside and out, computer spaces, permanently mounted telescope and imaging equipment... I was in charge of it and had nights under the stars there that inspired me. I had little free time at Stanford, but I do remember one weekend biking from the top of Page Mill Road, south on Hwy 35 to Hwy 9, down to Jamison Creek Road, up to Empire Grade, and then all the way down to the lighthouse in Santa Cruz. I thought the redwoods and beaches and the UCSC campus were just about the most beautiful imaginable place I could be, and made a mental note. Later, for personal reasons, I transferred to UCLA to finish my PhD in Astronomy in Los Angeles.

UCLA was a great place too, and I ended up living in a couple of west side places before settling in with my friend Barbara in Santa Monica. I have fond memories of us running from our apartment on 7th and Strand down to the Santa Monica beach, doffing my shoes and running barefoot on the sand for another mile, and then when I was good and sweaty, doing a left turn and running into the waves and frolicking for a while before running back to the apartment. I did this every day I could manage the time. Wow. This is when I first began to really appreciate the joy of running. Prior, in smoggy San Gabriel Valley as a kid, breathing was something you tried hard NOT to do. I also got active in the UCLA Sierra Club then, and some of my best friends today date back to the UCLA Sierra Club of ~1980. I took the classes to qualify as a Sierra Club trip leader, and led trips to the mountains and elsewhere - a skill which came in handy after joining Cabrillo College.

My research at UCLA ranged widely. I first worked with Jonathan Katz, a brilliant astrophysicist who was already a tenured professor and only in his mid 20's. He told me that a couple of guys had come up with an intriguing idea for doing numerical simulations of fluid objects which was neither Lagrangian nor Eulerian and had no grid in fact at all. They called it "smoothed particle hydrodynamics", and he gave me their ApJ paper, told me to figure it out and write up computer code to apply it to black holes and stars, then promptly took off across the country for the next several months. When he came back, I had a working code which we used to run simulations of what happens to a star when it passes close to a black hole. It was one of the first astrophysical applications of SPH, which has since become one of the most important techniques in modern astrophysics for studying the evolution of stars and galaxies and non-equilibrium processes. It was also the first application of these tecniques to understanding the accretion disks around quasars. This got me my first two papers in the prestigous Astrophysical Journal (ApJ, as we say in the business!), in 1982. But Jonathan took a new position in Washington University in St. Louis and though tempted, I decided I'd not make yet another move. I liked California and wanted to set down roots here. My next research was in chaos theory, trying to see if this new branch of mathematics could shed light on the evident but mysterious and unknown "3rd integral of motion" which must be obeyed to account for the structure of galaxies, and the application of this to barred galaxies. I created lots of beautiful simulations of "strange attractors" in orbits of stars, seeing if barred galaxies developed, but never did discover what the 3rd integral was. That came many years later to other researchers. I was also desiring to do some observationally oriented astronomy, and my final switch was to work with Holland Ford and his small group, who were using planetary nebulae and their spectral emission lines in clever ways in order to measure their radial velocities and determine the dynamical mass and structure of galaxies. This intrigued me, and my doctoral disssertation was on the structure and mass of the Andromeda Galaxy and its elliptical galaxy companion M32, coming up with a novel application of the statistical tool Analysis of Variance to apply to the nuclear regions of elliptical galaxies, along with the PN data, to determine the dynamical mass of elliptical galaxies - something which was very interesting since in these days, primitive electronic detectors had a hard time measuring the mass of such galaxies in any way. Got my PhD in 1984, finishing madly my dissertation work while the excitment of the 1984 Summer Olympics was going on elsewhere on the UCLA campus.

This success landed me a choice job - a post-doctoral fellowship with one of the most highly regarded young new astrophysicists - Simon White, as he joined the faculty of the University of Arizona. So, I arrived back at my second home - Tucson - in 1984 for another 2 years for a post doctoral fellowship. There, I worked on developing codes for identifying dynamically the clustering of galaxies into groups and clusters. This foray into cosmology stayed with me through the 1990's. This is also where I met a great bunch of athletic people who were gung-ho into the brand new sport of triathlon. I'd done my first 10K race on the very day I loaded the U-Haul and left Santa Monica for Tucson. I learned about the sport of triathlon and was intrigued - signing up for the "Strawman Triathlon" in Camp Verde, south of Flagstaff. It was such a great experience, with the whole town baking and cooking for us the night before, treating us at the Elk Lodge with great cooking, and staffing the race course the next day. I was hooked! I met future pro's Jimmy Ricitello and Paul Huddle and a small band of other UofA triathletes and we'd do dawn rides up into the Tucson Mountains, run the desert trails, and swim in the UofA pool.

Back to work - along the way, I've been fortunate enough to win time on some of the biggest telescopes in the world (at the time) - the Palomar 200", Lick Observatory, and Kitt Peak National Observatory. It's been an exciting life.

In 1986, however, it was still not that easy to get a "real" job in astronomy. Those old '60's space program hired astronomers loved the life too much to retire, and job pickings were very slim. In the end, I had a choice to join with my old UofA roomate John Hayes at the company he helped found - Wyco Corp - or join Cabrillo College as their astronomy instructor. I had just a few days to decide which to take. One would have made me a fortune, as it turned out (John used his dual major in optics and astronomy to pioneer the engineering of very high precision interferometers for measuring the shapes of surfaces. This turned out to be very valuable in the new hard disk business as PC's has just been invented. I still think about John, and his several personal jets... ). The other is the job I chose, since I still loved Astronomy and decided I could keep up my research at UCSC, where I'd already made collaborations with Sandy Faber and Joel Primack at conferences, I could live in Santa Cruz; one of the most beautiful places in the country, and be able to teach, which is something I also love doing. I joined Cabrillo College in the summer of 1986 and the rest, as they say, is history, which you can find on the many pages of my website.

Enjoy!