This occasional series focuses on members of the Frontier Fields team. It highlights the individuals, their jobs, and the paths they took to get to where they are today.
What does a typical day on the job entail? What are your responsibilities?
There’s really no such thing as a ‘typical’ day, and that’s what makes it interesting! I travel frequently, whether to observe on ground-based telescopes, meet with collaborators, present at conferences, or give talks in other departments. My position is 100 percent research, so when I’m in the office in Austin I can spend almost all of my time analyzing data, reading and writing papers, with occasional meetings with other researchers in the department. The travel is fun but can be very tiring, so when I’m in the office I enjoy being able to put some music on and get absorbed in solving problems.
What specifically is your educational background?
I have a BSc in Mathematics, Physics, and Astrophysics from King’s College London, an MSc in Astronomy from the University of Sussex, and a PhD in Astronomy from Durham University, all in the UK.
What particularly interested you in school or growing up? What were your favorite subjects?
I was always good at math; it just came naturally and I never had to think about it too much. It didn’t interest me, though, math at school being pretty dull. It wasn’t until towards the end of high school when I started reading popular science books that introduced the more esoteric aspects of math—the nature of pi, why prime numbers are so cool, etc.—that I started to realize there was more to it than the mechanical tedium of solving equations. Math is the most fundamental thing there is, and I wish we taught more kids that.
How did you first become interested in space?
My mum was completely fascinated by the Moon landing, and that fascination with space must have filtered down. I remember the first time I saw the Moon through my grandfather’s telescope: seeing it as this whole other world with its hills and craters really brought home that there are entire other worlds out there.
Like many people in the field, science fiction also played a huge role in feeding my interest in space. I was a voracious reader as a kid, so my mum would pick up whatever used books she could find for me at charity shops. The first science fiction book she bought me completely blew my mind: it was Nightfall, a collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov. Still one of my favorite science fiction stories!
Was there someone (parent, teacher, spouse, sibling, etc.) or something (book, TV show, lecture etc.) that influenced you in developing a love for what you do, or the program you’re a part of?
I was not the most well-behaved kid in school, so I have to give huge kudos to my math teacher Graham Curson for recognizing I was bored and lending me the books that started to make it interesting. It was from those that I moved into reading Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene, which is what got me into physics, a subject I had never enjoyed at school. And science fiction is what drove me towards astronomy in particular. As well as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke was a huge influence on me. They’re both very good at highlighting how so much of what we take for granted about the world (gravity, the Sun, etc.) would be so different on any other planet, and running with those ideas to talk about how these differences would affect life. When most people think of 2001: A Space Odyssey they think of the big themes of evolution and the dangers of technology. What sticks in my mind is a throwaway line in which a young girl who grew up in a low-gravity environment expressed distaste for Earth because falling down hurts.
Was there a particular event (e.g. lunar landing; first Shuttle flight etc.) that particularly captured your imagination and led to life changes?
I was actually an accountant for several years before I switched careers to astronomy, and while working as an accountant I was also Treasurer of the Tolkien Society in the UK. In 2005 we held a large conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Lord of the Rings and one of the speakers was Kristine Larsen, an astronomer, talking about Tolkien’s lunar creation myth. Meeting someone who studied space for a living really made me reevaluate my life. Two weeks later I quit my job and moved to London to start my undergraduate degree, and I haven’t looked back.
How did you first get started in the space business?
Unlike a lot of people in the field, I didn’t come in with a long-term plan, having started out on a whim. But when I finished my undergraduate degree I knew I had only scratched the surface, so I applied for a Masters in Astronomy. The exposure to research with real data was what got me hooked, and before I knew what was happening I was being nudged towards applying for PhDs.
What do you think of the Hubble results, or the impact that Hubble has on society?
I’m exactly the right age to have been young and impressionable when the first Hubble images came out, and they were mesmerizing! The exquisite quality of the images has captured the public’s imagination like nothing else, and it’s also turned out to be (by some metrics) the most scientifically productive telescope ever built.
Is there a particular image or result that fascinates you?
Since I work on gravitationally lensed galaxies, I think the most fascinating image is Abell 370, the first strongly lensing galaxy cluster discovered. It was discovered about 50 years after Fritz Zwicky had suggested the idea of using galaxy clusters as lenses. It was fringe science, not something anyone expected to ever be able to observe in practice. Then in the 1980s, along came sensitive CCD cameras, and there it was. The fact that it was included in the Frontier Fields means we now have really exquisite images of this incredible cluster with its famous prominent arc. The discovery of this cluster brings together so many things: a theoretical idea proving to be right, the way developments in technology drive scientific progress, and gravitational lensing itself, which is inherently fascinating. How incredible is it that the fabric of space works in such a way as to provide gigantic natural telescopes for us?
Are there specific parts of the program that you’re proud to have contributed to?
My main contribution has been finding the faintest, most distant galaxies. It turns out that’s really hard, because although the clusters magnify the images, you have this gigantic, super-bright cluster in the way. To find the faint background galaxies I had to develop a whole new technique for subtracting the cluster, but it turns out it works really well and I was able to find the faintest galaxies ever seen in the early Universe.
What outside interests—e.g., hobbies, service, dreams, activities—could you share that would help others understand you better?
I sew, and have become known for my space dresses; I’ve had several Hubble images printed on fabric and turned them into clothing – including two Hubble Frontier Fields dresses – that I wear for outreach events and at conferences. I’m also still interested in science fiction, so I make costumes for science fiction conventions, and sometimes run the conventions themselves. When I moved to the US four years ago I was excited to discover renaissance faires, which seem to be huge outdoor costume parties with jousting and fried food.
Is there anything else that you think is important for readers to know about you?
Since it was a public outreach talk that started my career in science, I try to pay that forward by doing a lot of outreach myself. I give talks in schools and co-founded Astronomy on Tap in Austin, Texas, which is a series of monthly talks in a bar. One of my favorite things to do is use science fiction as a hook to talk about science; I run a blog critiquing the science in Star Trek in excruciating detail, and I do regular movie screenings with the Alamo Drafthouse cinema at which I’ll analyze the scientific accuracy of the movie (some of these are on YouTube). Using popular culture as a starting point is a great way to get people thinking about science, and it’s meant I’ve been able to talk about Star Trek as part of my job, which is pretty great!
You can follow Rachael on Twitter at @rhaegal.