Ray A. Lucas




Some people consider their work a calling. In my case, it literally was, but I'll get back to that later... The story is somewhat long and complicated, and too long for me to really tell or for you to read here! But, if you're really desperate for something to read right now, well, I guess you must be trying to avoid something else you probably should be doing! In that case, read on, dear reader...

Like many other people who have ended up in astronomy, I also wanted to be an astronomer as a child, and I can distinctly remember reading specific books about the planets and stars at various points in my elementary school education, unwilling even to put them down when I got to the dinner table, and being fascinated enough that I demanded that I be allowed to use the little money I had saved to buy things like adult-level Scientific American astronomy books on the occasions when we visited the nearby planetarium in Chapel Hill. I can also remember often being very difficult for my parents to get to the dinner table because I was engrossed in something I found fascinating. On one occasion I remember in particular, I was still in the car long after a trip, lost in the midst of a long newspaper article about quasars and cosmology and things like the edge of the universe (there is no "edge" as such - all of space was contained within the point that expanded as the Big Bang) and event horizons. And, I can especially remember lying on my back in a field on our farm and looking up at the Milky Way, and realizing that I was looking out at the plane of the galaxy, and that beyond that, to either side, was the halo of the galaxy, and then intergalactic space. This was quite a revelation in perspective - that I was lying on the temporarily night-time side of a spinning spherical rock, looking out at the galaxy, and beyond! As a student at Orange High School in Orange County, near the town of Hillsborough, North Carolina, although involved in the kinds of things many high school kids everywhere were involved in, I never forgot this different and larger perspective which took me beyond the daily concerns of a teenager's life.

As a child, I wanted to do practically everything, and I thought that I could, and that I should be able to... We all learn that we have limitations, but we also sometimes learn that we often have never really fully tested them or our capacity to learn. My own father, mother, brother, and grandparents, as well as a number of other relatives and family friends when I was a child, all exceptional people in their own ways, taught me that there is always more to learn. The same is true of the many exceptional people with whom I have been fortunate to meet, work, and play, in astronomy, music and the arts, and in sports I've played like basketball and football, and indeed, of the many exceptional people I've been fortunate to meet in life in general.

In school, I sometimes had a strange and maddening tendency in math and physics classes to solve the problems that everyone else missed and then miss too many of the ones that everyone else solved! Thus, I rarely shied away from a challenge, but sometimes jumped in over my head... Learning that I could do some things was something of a comfort, once learned, belying all the trouble I sometimes had convincing myself of the right way to do something in some circumstances. But both science and math proceed by hard work, and by looking into the darkness and shining a light to satisfy a healthy intellectual curiosity and/or equally to overcome fear and apprehension. It is by such fits and starts, and by overcoming our own stumbling blocks that we learn. The human brain, of course, is still one of the greatest mysteries in the universe!

Having many interests means that you are rarely if ever bored for long, at least as long as you can make the opportunity to think about interesting things. My first love in science as a child was astronomy, but I must have gotten a bit lost from that direct path because I also wanted to be a photographer, a paleontologist, an archaeologist, a geologist, a musician, an artist, a historian, a linguist, a calligrapher, a cryptographer, an athlete, a train engineer, an aerospace engineer, a cartographer, a mountaineer, an adventurer and explorer of distant and exotic places, a pilot, and an astronaut among many other things too numerous to mention. (I'm sure that I have forgotten some of them!) In high school, I was picked by science teachers to be part of a small group of students from area high schools who went to science lectures and demonstrations at various local universities given by professors and researchers on subjects from astronomy and astrophysics to computers, forestry, medicine, and zoology. So, I was fortunate again to be exposed to a wide variety of high-quality local experts who could serve to fuel my equally wide variety of interests, although it was also somewhat overwhelming in some sense, because I still wanted to do everything! Fortunately, I have also gotten to indulge some of these childhood dreams as an adult, sometimes at levels or in ways I may have dreamed of but had no inkling that I would ever be able or fortunate enough to achieve.

In sports, as a freshman, I was fortunate to receive a personal letter from my university's basketball coaches inviting me to try out for the team, and then to have a very brief college basketball career, although it didn't even last until the first game or even the team picture. After grueling tryouts and making the cuts despite a lot of very good competition, those of us remaining not already on scholarship had been told by the coaches that we'd made the team and so I got my official university practice gear and began the life of a collegiate athlete, but several weeks later, I hurt my ankle severely and was the first case of attrition that season. I handed back my practice gear and today don't even have any memento of that brief time (except the letter, somewhere), but as brief as it was, it taught me a lot. First, it exposed me to some exceptional people and reinforced a great experience in learning and development I had there at a basketball camp in between the 11th and 12th grades. And then, it reminded me that great things were possible, as in the case of the Orange High School basketball program that won a state championship when I was in the 10th grade. (Although it was perhaps not always as openly confrontational in our school's case as in films such as Remember the Titans, it was at a time in the south during the final, full integration of schools, and we players both black and white, varsity and junior varsity - since we all practiced together - felt and were made aware of the need to be an example of achievement for the rest of the school through teamwork and unity and respect. We learned a lot from each other, developed friendships we might not otherwise have had, shared much laughter and pain, and great things were indeed achieved! I think these lessons are more relevant than ever in the world we live in today.) And both experiences in the 10th grade and as a freshman in college reminded me that I could do more than others expected, or even than I expected of myself, if I worked hard when placed in a situation optimized for success.

I understood these issues readily as applied to sports and social change taking place at the time, but in terms of academics, I had such widely varying interests that it took a good while for me to fully realize and internalize these things, and I often floundered from subject to subject as an undergraduate, very interested in many subjects, but unfortunately not always most interested at the same time I happened to be in a given class. My eye was always on something beyond where I was at any given instant, it seemed. And then, with a degree in zoology (and an accidental double major in psychology) practically in hand, I rediscovered my original love and passion for astronomy, and from that point on, I usually couldn't get enough of it. Though still taking a wide variety of courses like Chinese Literature in Translation and Classical Archaeology at UNC-Chapel Hill and also Canadian History at Duke, I spent more and more time at the observatory both before and after graduation, until my former professor finally just gave me a key, admonishing me only to avoid conflicting with the times for which other classes and grad students were signed up. Chapel Hill was the kind of college town where many ex-students wanted to remain, and I was no exception. There were non-practicing MDs working as medical lab technicians, people with PhDs working as clerks, people with 5 different degrees looking for work in any one of their fields. And not only were there just the UNC-Chapel Hill students with which to compete for those jobs, but also the ones from nearby Duke (8 miles away), and NC State (about 25 miles away), plus others from the many other public and private universities in the Research Triangle and Piedmont Triad, such as Wake Forest, and the constant influx of more highly-educated people from elsewhere into the Research Triangle Area in general. In such an environment, any job you could get was a good one, at least for a while, and I was blessed to have a number of very interesting ones (or to be able to make them more interesting.) And indeed, I had done quite a few other things while living in Chapel Hill - working as a sometimes paid, sometimes volunteer announcer and music programmer at a large public radio station, WUNC-FM, where I was given the freedom to play music as diverse as Mozart, Sun Ra, Cajun music, Javanese gamelan, blues, Ghanian drummers, Irish folk bands, and music of all other sorts I could make work in the same set if I wished. Along with a more free-form program on Friday nights, I did some "all-classical" programs, and also some late-night jazz shows, and was about the third or fourth person there to do a long-running show loosely based on traditional music of various kinds called Back Porch Music. Being a musician who sometimes played in various places around town myself, I greatly appreciated this freedom to approach music as a continuum, and I enjoyed meeting and getting to play music with many great musicians who came to town to visit, especially musicians of the various "folk" varieties, although I don't really like to use labels... I also was fortunate to get to work at the Morehead Planetarium, a place which had contributed greatly to my early interest in astronomy when my parents took me there, and where all the U.S. astronauts in the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab programs had trained in celestial navigation. I enjoyed doing a variety of work while there - doing art work for the staff artist, helping install and test a new computer and automation system, helping put in a new sound studio, building special effects, helping maintain the Zeiss VI planetarium projector, and giving live lectures to the public on various topics in astronomy. Since I also worked at the radio station, I wrote and recorded pieces on astronomy for broadcast on behalf of the Morehead Planetarium. At various other times, I worked in pulmonary medicine research, a Near East-North Africa public health training program, and the Chemistry Department, all the while continuing to take further coursework in things like computer programming, climatology, and remote sensing as a graduate and university employee. I even tried out for a part in a play in Duke University's Summer Theatre at Duke program, and through some means unknown to me, since I had no acting experience or education at all in my background, still managed to survive the auditions and callbacks and win a small part in a play, George Bernard Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple", set in 18th century America, during the American Revolution. And throughout this time, I continued to play music and to also do things at the observatory as often as possible. All in all, it was an interesting and stimulating life.

In the Spring of 1985, a professor of astronomy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Morris Davis, ran into me at a downtown crosswalk on East Franklin Street there and literally asked me if I would be interested in working on the Space Telescope. He told me that he had received a call from someone at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), the science institute for the Hubble Telescope, and that he had taken the liberty of giving them my name. All I can say is that he knew something of the kinds of things I had been doing on my own there for some years after not getting to do all I wanted in that upper-level observational astronomy course. He must have thought that I needed to be put to work in astronomy since it seemed I was doing it for free already while doing a number of other things to keep myself fed and housed. Not long after my encounter with Morris Davis, and after talking with the folks at STScI and getting more advice from Bruce Carney, Wayne Christiansen, and Jon Thomas at UNC, I was essentially plucked from the streets of Chapel Hill and given an opportunity to work on the Hubble Telescope. One can never say "thank you" enough for great opportunities like that, but here I wish to say it publicly to all those people who helped make it possible. It is also gratifying to see the Physics and Astronomy Department at UNC-Chapel Hill now being active partners in the new SOAR (Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research) Telescope being built on top of Cerro Pachon, near Cerro Tololo, in the Chilean Andes, as well as other new projects like the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT).

I was brought to STScI by Computer Sciences Corporation to work with the late Barry Lasker and his group who were creating the Guide Star Catalog as well as a digital version of the entire sky. There could not have been a better place to begin, since working there afforded me the opportunity to work with a person of such exceptional character as Barry, and his group, and to see a myriad of interesting objects on Schmidt plates and in digital images on the computer every day. As well as the work on the Guide Stars project, this led me into a project on polar ring galaxies with Brad Whitmore who was a great person to work with and who was most gracious to include me on that project, which was a perfect way to pursue my interest in so-called "peculiar" galaxies which were often the products of galaxy interactions and mergers. During this time, I was also fortunate to take more classwork on galaxies at Johns Hopkins with Colin Norman, Allan Sandage, George Miley, and Alex Szalay. I could only wish that I was as good a student as they deserved to have.

After completion of the first version of the Guide Star Catalog and the completion of the first generation all-sky digital image archive, in March 1989, I took a job with AURA in the user support area of STScI. It was about this time that I first observed at places like the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile, a part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), and the Very Large Array (VLA) of radio telescopes in New Mexico, a part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). I began to get more involved with proposed HST projects to study interacting and merging galaxies and distant galaxy clusters. Before the first HST servicing mission, I was asked by Alan Dressler and Bill Sparks to become more involved in the early "deep" WFPC2 observations of the medium redshift galaxy cluster CL0939+4713 (Abell 851) which were designed to demonstrate the capabilities of HST and the new WFPC2 with corrective optics as applied to the study of more distant galaxies. At about the same time, a proposal with Kirk Borne and others to study ring galaxies including the Cartwheel Galaxy was accepted by the HST TAC, and some time after that, with Curt Struck and Phil Appleton, we published a paper on giant infalling comet-like gas clouds in the Cartwheel. Other projects then followed in succession. A proposal to study the globular cluster systems in different kinds of galaxies in different environments led to a study of the globular cluster population of the giant elliptical galaxy M87 in the Virgo Cluster, again with Brad Whitmore, Bill Sparks, and others. The earlier involvement with the CL0939+4713 WFPC2 imaging helped lead to my subsequent involvement in the original Hubble Deep Field-North project with Bob Williams et al. since the quality of the new Abell 851 images and the things one could learn from them had been one of Bob's inspirations for the HDF. Also, not long after that and again with Kirk Borne and others, a large HST snapshot survey of ultraluminous infrared galaxies with WFPC2 and another smaller one with NICMOS which we proposed were both approved and thus far, among other things, have yielded a public release and paper on multiple galaxy mergers, a paper on NICMOS nuclear properties, a NICMOS catalog paper, and a paper on the QDOT sample of galaxies, plus a number of other smaller papers. At about the same time, I was invited to be a part of two HDF-North follow-ups using NICMOS with Mark Dickinson et al. and using STIS with Harry Ferguson et al. Soon after, I was also involved in the Hubble Deep Field-South project, and more recently, was invited by Mauro Giavalisco et al. to be a part of a large HST Treasury proposal which we proposed and which was accepted, the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey, or GOODS. The original part of the GOODS project is also a SIRTF (Space Infrared Telescope Facility) Legacy project, and both the HST and SIRTF portions of the GOODS project utilize archival data from another of NASA's Great (Space) Observatories, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Another project related to GOODS in which I became involved is being a member of the STScI Working Group for the HST ACS Ultra-Deep Field which was done in the middle of the GOODS southern field in the area of the Chandra Deep Field-South. The ACS Ultra-Deep Field is the new "deepest optical image of the sky" as were the original HDF-N WFPC2 image and the HDF-S STIS image before it. As a part of the HUDF parallels programs which I helped design in collaboration with Massimo Stiavelli and others, we also produced the deepest infrared observations ever taken of the sky at that time. We (Stiavelli et al.) have followed that up with a program (the so-called UDF05 program) to do deep optical imaging on those parallel deepest infrared fields and more (deeper) infrared imaging in a portion of the original HUDF in order to search for very high-redshift early galaxies near the era of the reionization of the universe. In addition to these things, I have also recently been observing VLIRGs (Very Luminous Infrared Galaxies) with fellow STScI colleague and IAC staff member Santiago Arribas at the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos on La Palma, in the Canary Islands, Spanish islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the southern coast of Morocco. Astronomy is a good field for traveling to beautiful mountain tops from time to time, and it has also enabled me to observe at other places like McDonald Observatory in West Texas, and to visit observatories and telescopes at places like the Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) outside of Tucson, Arizona, and the ~14,000-foot summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawai'i where there are a large number and variety of telescopes such as the Keck, Subaru, Gemini-North, Canada-France-Hawai'i (CFHT), and James Clerk Maxwell Submillimetre Telescope (JCMT) and United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT), among others, and other places like Palomar Observatory, Mount Wilson Observatory, and the Green Bank radio astronomy observatory. And scientific meetings and etc. have enabled me to travel to other astronomical institutions in interesting places such as the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory (DAO) in Victoria, British Columbia, the Osservatorio Astronomico di Capodimonte in Naples, the Bologna Astronomical Observatory of the Astronomy Department of the University of Bologna, the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge in England, the offices of the European Southern Observatory in Garching, near Munich, and to work on data as a visitor at the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias in La Laguna, on the island of Tenerife, also one of the Canary Islands.

Also, in the last few years, I have worked on a project on a ring galaxy called Hoag's Object at the request of the Hubble Heritage Program (see also an introduction and my article for the general public on this galaxy, with many thanks to Tiffany Borders, who did the image processing for Hubble Heritage) and an ACS (Advanced Camera for Surveys) calibration target called the Boomerang Nebula which they also used as one of their image releases.

I also have an approved, funded NVO research program to add some VLA radio data I took to the National Virtual Observatory (NVO) repository and to use the NVO resources to do a multiwavelength study of this sample of steep spectrum radio sources from the Texas Interferometer Survey. I gave this talk (pdf file version) on the project at the IAU meeting in Prague, Czech Republic, in August 2006.

Most recently, for the last few years, I have been a co-Investigator on the CANDELS program, the largest award of Hubble observing time ever given out to any scientific collaboration, amounting to more than 900 orbits. The aim of this program is to study galaxy evolution in 5 very well-studied fields, GOODS-N, GOODS-S, UDS, COSMOS, and EGS.

And, I am also a member of the core STScI Frontier Fields Team designing, planning, and implementing the so-called Hubble Frontier Fields, which aims to provide non-proprietary, Director's Discretionary data for the wider astronomical community to use the gravitational mass in distant galaxy clusters as gravitational lenses to magnify the most distant, young galaxies behind them in the early universe, to study their numbers and de-projected morphologies, pushing the frontiers of what the Hubble Space Telescope can achieve together with the effects of gravitational lensing, in anticipation of the capabilities of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to be launched late in this decade, around 2018. We are designing and planning the observations, and will produce clean, calibrated images and object catalogs for the greater astronomical community to study and explore.

A great deal of this I must ascribe to having always just followed things I found interesting as best I could and then having been fortunate that someone else noticed what I was doing and, maybe thinking it was worthwhile or that I could contribute something, then gave me a greater opportunity when they were in a position to do so. It certainly was not because I had a plan for my life all worked out. In fact, it was almost exactly the opposite. It is not always easy to live this way when you're young because those around you can't always see where you are going, nor in fact can you even see this yourself at times, so it can be frustrating and can also take a great belief in the power of your own interests to lead you to places you ought to be or in which you can make some useful contribution to society. It also is not always easy to live this way because it requires not only action on your part in following and doing the things you love, but also great patience and perseverance, since, even if you believe what you are doing is worthwhile, you don't always know that some interest will lead to a way of making a living, which is of course a big concern for most of us!

Be all that as it may, despite having taken a long and fairly complicated detour through many other fields, I eventually found my way back to astronomy, and then it found me! But I have also learned a lot and had many interesting experiences from all the other things I've done. Even failure at something is better than never trying, and I do tend to believe that old saying that the only person who never fails is the person who is too afraid and never tries anything, which is of course, the ultimate failure! Of course, none of us ever wants to fail at anything, and rightly so, but when we do, we as humans often learn as much or more from failure as we do from success, hence the importance of trying, although that advice is often difficult for me to follow, myself! Because of being associated with HST on some web sites here, I sometimes get letters from people around the world who want to know how to get into astronomy or to advance their studies in that way. But, a bit like professional sports, there are not so many jobs in astronomy, even today, so first, I would say that it should be done primarily for the love of it, especially since astronomers are not paid salaries like professional athletes or movie stars or rock stars, or sometimes even like some other technical professionals. Your time is the most valuable thing, and if you have been doing something you loved, then in some sense it was not wasted even if it has not made you financially rich, although, at some level, you have to tend to these things to the degree necessary for the way in which you wish to live. Second, for anyone, especially young people, trying to figure out what to do with their lives and their talents and energy, I would say that there are lots of beneficial things to try and do, as long as they are not hurtful to people and are done to promote love and understanding rather than hate. In the realm of science, for example, medical imaging is one thing that comes to mind. There are many more health care facilities than astronomical institutions, and likewise many more jobs in medicine than in astronomy, yet some of the technologies and skills required are similar in some ways (even some astronomical hardware and software has been adapted to medical uses by some people here at STScI working in collaboration with people at medical institutions), and increases in the capabilities of such technology to aid humanity have been dramatic in recent years, although the availability of such resources to everyone needs to be much greater. That in itself is a great challenge for young minds at present and for the future.

For me, the world is a far richer place in spirit and inspiration for all of these detours I've taken! And I still hope for a family and children of my own, someday. As any parent can tell you, I'm sure, that would be the greatest challenge and adventure of all!

Finally, here is a bit more about hobbies, etc.

Photo credits: Skip Westphal (L); Harry & Amy Braun (R)
An Ultraluminous Infrared Galaxy (ULIRG) adorning my computer screen (L), and playing fiddle for an audience at a festival in Chapel Hill, NC (R).

The Space Telescope Science Institute and NASA are not responsible for the contents of my pages or links from them.

Ray Lucas
lucas@stsci.edu
08/31/02