Multiwavelength Astronomy

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Infrared History, Martin Harwit

Trying to Become a Scientist

Because I had not yet finished high school in Istanbul, I first enrolled in a local New York high school in April 1946, but over the summer switched to the Bronx High School of Science, a public school more focused on science. I still wasn’t clear on what I wanted to do, but my father had rightly advised me to stay away from biochemistry. When children work in the same field as their father, he said, everyone expects them to measure up to their parent. This would be quite unfair to me, he thought, because he had a 35-year head start.

After graduating from Oberlin college in 1951, I went to the University of Michigan as a graduate student. At Michigan I became interested in molecular spectroscopy and chemical physics. I worked in the laboratory of G.B.B.M. Sutherland, who was exploring chemical spectroscopy at infrared wavelengths. He was interested in molecular fragments called peptides --- basic building blocks that form proteins and other biological molecules. Before arriving in Michigan, I taught myself as much about spectroscopy as I could by reading through two volumes on molecular spectroscopy by Gerhard Herzberg. I probably shouldn't have started with these, but I thought that if I read them I would be better prepared. This could have helped except that I didn't have the basic background to understand such an advanced topic. Though difficult, the books proved useful, years later, when I became seriously interested in molecular chemistry.

At Michigan, I was in a hurry to pursue a doctoral degree --- the PhD. I started taking all the courses I could handle that would allow me to complete the three required written examinations for the degree. On my first try I passed one of these; the second exam I passed on a second try, but still failed the third exam both times. In view of these failures, I was told there was no way I could get a PhD. I lacked the talent; there was no use trying. I was 23 and my carreer as a scientist appeared to have ended.

That summer, while I was thinking about what I might try next, I found work with a research group at Michigan, which used rocket-borne instrumentation to study the upper atmosphere. Though I enjoyed this, I was all set to leave and try to get my PhD elsewhere, when my father advised, “Why not just stay with this group if you really like working with them?” He was confident I could become a good physicist.

I still thought I should move on; but just about then, the professor in charge of the upper atmosphere research asked whether I’d like to stay on at Michigan. He thought I was doing a good job. So I did stay, though, as it turned out, for only a few months.

The US was engaged in the Korean War at the time and I soon received a notice from my draft board calling me to active military duty. But the collegiality of Michigan’s upper atmosphere research group had sparked an interest in rocketry that never quite left me.

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This material is based upon work supported by NASA under Grant Nos. NNX09AD33G and NNX10AE80G issued through the SMD ROSES 2009 Program.

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