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Capturing the Universe, on Paper: A Q&A with Megan

August 1, 2017

 

The following few questions are some of the most frequent questions I get when talking to people about what I do. I hope you enjoy finding out a little more about me:

 

What exactly do you do?

 

My career can be described several different ways, but the short answer is I write about science. For my day job, I write about astronomy and astrophysics related to NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory for the public. This means I work on press releases, blog posts, material for the website, short articles, long articles, video scripts, you name it.

 

On the side, I write popular science books. The first one was exclusively about space (“Your Ticket to the Universe: A Guide to Exploring the Cosmos”) and we also co-authored one with Travis Rector about how images from space are made (“Coloring the Universe: An Insider’s Guide to Making Spectacular Images of Space”.) Our other two books venture beyond space, though there’s some astronomy in there. “Light: The Visible Spectrum and Beyond”) had lots of different kinds of science in it and our upcoming book, “Magnitude: The Scale of the Universe,” will likewise cover many different topics and disciplines.

 

 

How did you get into your career?

 

When I was growing up and into high school, I liked a lot of different subjects including history and literature. However, I always had a pull toward science. When it came time to go to college, I deliberately picked a large enough school that would have the full suite of options for me, including astronomy. While I did enjoy majoring in that at the University of Michigan, I knew by my junior year that I didn’t want to pursue a Ph.D. in astrophysics.

 

Instead, I found the science journalism program at Boston University, which was a great fit. Since I had spent my four years in college doing things like problem sets and very little writing, it was just what I needed. The BU program really taught me how to write and what journalism is all about. Through one of my professors, I was able to land my first job as a public affairs specialist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which then led to my current position.

 

 CfA. Credit: John Phelan, CC by 3.0

 

What’s it like to work for NASA?

 

The first thing to understand is that NASA is a huge agency. There are multiple centers scattered around the country – from New York City to Alabama to California. Many people work on what NASA’s best known for: human space flight. However, there are thousands of people who work on different aspects of science, engineering, technology, and various ways to support these efforts. On top of that, NASA contracts with universities, industries, and other federal agencies to do all that they do. I work on one mission in the astrophysics division, but there are many, many aspects to NASA that I don’t have any first-hand experience with. I do interact with NASA HQ, which is Washington, DC, but I don’t physically work at a NASA center. Since Chandra is controlled and operated by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, I think our workplace has more of an academic feel than much of NASA.

 

I’ve heard of Hubble, but not Chandra. Why not?

 

Chandra is one of NASA’s so-called Great Observatories, which means it’s a sister mission to Hubble along with Spitzer and Compton (no longer operating). The Great Observatories were designed as a set – each looking at a different kind of light. Hubble first became famous partly because it didn’t work as it should after it launched. (It didn’t help during that time that “Hubble” rhymed with “trouble”.) For a while, it seemed like a multi-billion dollar mistake that NASA had to deal with. Of course, the story took a dramatic turn for the better when astronauts bravely went up and fixed the telescope. After that, there was a flood of amazing data that came back and Hubble has been famous ever since. In fact, I would argue that the name “Hubble” is synonymous with “telescope” the way that “Coke” is tied to “soda” or “Kleenex” is to “tissue.” It’s almost become its own brand name for all things dealing with space.No other telescope will likely ever have the name recognition that Hubble does, but that doesn’t mean the public isn’t fascinated by the science produced by Chandra and others. We get major coverage for many of our discoveries that cover things like black holes, exploded stars, dark matter, etc. It’s just that many people might not remember the name of Chandra, which is fine with me as long as they are excited by the science itself! 

 

Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

 

Your job sounds really fun, but I could never imagine being able to do that.

 

This is more of a comment than a question, but I get it a lot – especially from women, which makes me want to tear my hair out. The implication for comments like this is often that science is too hard for many people, or at least large groups who don’t identify as being “science people.”

 

The truth is that our society has done a fantastic job of convincing far too many of us that science is something only done by a select few (this often is restricted to white men). One main goal of my career is to change that perception. Science is for all of us. Period end. It affects everyone and, perhaps more importantly, it can be done and understood by anyone. This doesn’t mean that it’s easy, but then again, neither is being a professional musician or a master carpenter or many, many disciplines. I hope that the reputation of exclusivity that has been perpetuated about science can one day be permanently dismantled. If I can play a small role in that, I’ll be thrilled.

 

-Megan Watzke

 

 

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