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Catching Up With . . . Wayne Van Citters

Making the Future, Looking at Ancient Light 

by Brooke C. Stoddard '69

 

 

Cold clear nights may have forged Wayne’s soul more than any Princeton lectures; light created billions of years before the laying of Nassau Hall’s foundation reached his eyes.  

 

He was born in Minneapolis of parents with roots in the Upper Midwest, and before that The Netherlands and Sweden. When Wayne was two the family moved to rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania so Wayne’s father could take a job in public relations at the Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper. “We had 10 acres,” Wayne says. “The skies were very dark. There was nature all around. I think I appreciated nature a lot when I was young, because it was all around me. I was always fascinated by science. And although my father was in public relations, he was fascinated by science and engineering. Some of my early memories are of him and me building things like radios. For a school project we built a papier-mâché model Sputnik and put in a radio transmitter to make it beep. We also spent lots of time outdoors on our backs at night looking for Sputnik as it moved among the stars.”

 

When Wayne was in the seventh grade, the family moved again, this time across the Delaware River to Moorestown, New Jersey, also a far suburb of Philadelphia, and again with room to roam; his father began working in public relations for  RCA’s Missile and Surface Radar facility.

 

Wayne gives high marks to Moorestown High School, which he said had fantastic teachers, especially in English and the sciences. “My favorites were – in middle school – general science, which had a section on astronomy, and, later, chemistry teachers.” Moving with him to Princeton ’69 were Moorestown classmates Tom Alspach and Ed Petrillo.

 

“In high school I had dreams of being a chemist,” Wayne reflects, “though it could have been another science or engineering. But during freshman year, I roomed with Brian Walker and Hal Hoeland. Having been in prep school, they were a bit more advanced than I in the academic sciences and were taking organic chemistry. I reflected on some of their assignments and decided I would forgo becoming a chemist. So I went over to astronomy, and that suited me fine. I was taught by international leaders in astronomy and physics, James Peebles, David Wilkinson, Martin Schwarzschild, Lyman Spitzer, John Rogerson, Don Morton (my thesis advisor), and Jerry Ostriker, at that time all at Princeton! They really shaped my career, and I kept up with Don and Jerry for 50 years, most especially on the Gemini and Sloane Digital Sky Survey telescope projects, respectively. Jay Gallagher and Gus Oemler were classmates in astrophysics and our careers in astronomy have been closely intertwined since.”

 

“It also was Don Morton who introduced me to Harlan Smith, who was the director of the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, near Marfa, Texas run by the University of Texas. So that’s where I went for my PhD program. It was a great time to start observational astronomy, which I loved and still do. It was the summer of the moon landing and I was put to work on the lunar laser ranging program that the McDonald facility was running. Once Apollo 11 placed a reflector on the moon’s surface we began measuring the distance to the moon within three feet.” 

 

Wayne’s PhD work was not concerned with laser ranging though. He used – and refined  – new techniques for measuring the pulsations of a class of stars defined only about five years before. The pulses – which are instabilities in a star’s outer layers – can range from seconds to years, though Wayne studied a class whose pulses varied from a couple of hours to a day. Expanding on a technique developed by a British scientist, Wayne enhanced its precision and built an instrument so the measurements could be done electronically, using a small computer to control the instrument. “These computers were pretty primitive. They had a whopping 32K of memory, were programmed in machine language, and the input was by paper tape!” he recalled.

 

In 1971, Wayne made his first trip to South Africa as part of three teams (that went to South Africa, India, and Australia, funded by National Geographic) to observe a rare event, the occultation of the star beta Scorpii by Jupiter as Jupiter passed between us and the star. “By recording such events, you use the starlight to probe the atmosphere of Jupiter as the starlight is extinguished by the planet.” Wayne was hooked by the international aspect of astronomy.

 

Two years later, as part of completing his PhD work on the pulsating stars, Wayne and his new wife Lisa spent almost two years at the University of Cape Town in South Africa while Wayne worked with a British astronomer he had met in Texas. “Imagine my surprise when, very shortly after we arrived, ’69 classmate Jim Grippe showed up at my office! He and Linda were in Cape Town, too. Jim had been sent by Caltex Petroleum, a subsidiary of Texaco and Chevron. We were able to see some of the country together.” (photo, left)Wayne found the country intriguing, and it was there that Beth, the first of Lisa and his three children, was born.

 

 

 

 

Back to his PhD work at UTexas, Wayne took a job at McDonald Observatory and worked on a Defense Department project. [photo, right]. He also put together a team that proposed a high-speed photometer for the Hubble Space Telescope, then under construction. Wayne’s UTexas photometer team was merged with another from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to perfect the idea. Their high-speed photometer launched with Hubble in 1990, and was very successful – among other things it measured star pulsations -- but it had to be removed three years later to make room for the device that corrected Hubble’s optics. [Photo, left]

 

            In 1978, Wayne learned of and applied for an opening at the National Science Foundation looking for someone to run its instrumentation-in-astronomy program for three years. Wayne was chosen, so he, Lisa, daughter Beth, and son Doug moved to the Washington, D. C., where Wayne took the reins of the  Advanced Technology and Instrumentation program in the Astronomy division. His grand plan was to join the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore once Hubble was launched.

 

            “As it turned out, I really loved the National Science Foundation,” Wayne says. “At the end of the three years, I had met some exceptionally bright and nice people. So I re-upped and applied for becoming a permanent NSF program manager. I felt I could do more for the science that I loved by working through NSF than among the observational scientists. That was the start of my 40-year career at NSF. It was a great choice for me.”

 

            Wayne and the family settled into a home near Annapolis, Maryland (where Peter, P’03, was born) and he commuted to NSF headquarters, which at the time was about two blocks from the White House. For the first ten years, Wayne was a program officer. “It was fascinating work. I met some of the most brilliant people I have ever known, and what I was doing was providing them the money they needed for their research, people like Nobel Laureates Charles Towns and Andrea Gehz.” Founded during the Truman Administration to maintain the nation’s leadership in scientific knowledge, the NSF, unlike the Defense Department, cannot run its own laboratories. Basically, it evaluates proposals from academia, guided by merit review by the scientific community, and funds with federal dollars the top 20% for their research. 

 

Only a little while into the job and just six years out of his PhD, Wayne was assigned to evaluate a proposal from CalTech’s Bob Leighton, an esteemed physicist-astronomer who was seeking funding to build a 10-meter-diameter, very high precision radio telescope. Wayne was nervous about interviewing Leighton, but said, “Fortunately, I had the help of a good panel and I did not stumble badly with Bob.” Leighton’s 10-meter dish was very successful, and became the NSF-funded CalTech Sub-millimeter Observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, operating from 1986 to 2015.

 

CalTech’s Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO, where three of Leighton’s early dishes were in use) and Berkley’s Hat Creek Radio Observatory (HCRAO) were home to the two pioneering millimeter wavelength interferometers, both supported for years by Wayne’s program at NSF. These two university research efforts were the beginning of 30 years of development for the most expensive land-based telescope project ever attempted. “I like to think I was instrumental in getting this project started and completed,” Wayne says. The work eventually created a millimeter interferometer using 66 radio antennae, many movable, which act as one telescope, on a high (16,000 feet) desert plateau in Chile – the site had to be high in the atmosphere as well as low humidity in order to capture wavelengths otherwise absorbed in lower, more humid air. Named the Atacama (Chile) Large Millimeter Array or ALMA, it was the work of half a dozen countries and became fully operational in 2013. The purpose is to observe the creation of stars and solar systems. “It’s doing amazing science,” says Wayne. [Photo, left]

 

Wayne’s program also nurtured a long-term national effort involving university groups developing the technology and technics that led to the present generation of 8-10-meter diameter optical telescopes.  Examples are the 10-meter Keck telescope and the multi-nation Gemini Observatory, which has two 8-meter telescopes in Chile and Hawaii. One telescope was built in each hemisphere so that the Gemini Observatory would not be restricted by geography in the objects that it could observe. 

 

In the late ‘80s Wayne took a sabbatical in Hawaii to learn more about a recent invention, the charge coupled devices (CCDs) that capture light in small bits of silicon called pixels. Researchers had begun to learn how to make them more sensitive for astronomy, work which Wayne’s program was funding. He spent the year learning more about the techniques so that he could make better choices at NSF. We know them as the critical device in digital cameras, but Wayne’s efforts helped to put CCDs to work for astronomy.

 

Shortly after his return from Hawaii, the Gemini telescopes project was getting under way. Wayne was asked to be its NSF program officer, a post that was to occupy him full-time for the next 10 years. He recalls, “When I took this on, the telescopes had been a gleam in astronomers’ eyes for years. Now the time was ripe, politically, to turn those dreams into reality. There was still so much to be done to finalize designs and then choose among competing technologies. Those were heady times!” In addition to overseeing the technical aspects, it fell to Wayne to represent NSF in the formation of the international partnership that was to construct and operate the telescopes for the next 25+ years.

 

“It was..,” he says, “..well, it was the proverbial firehose of international legal systems, international astronomical politics, of learning diplomacy on the fly, all while keeping a close finger on the pulse of the project itself. Truth be known, I loved it!” Because the initial partners were the U.K. and Canada, Wayne found himself across from his Princeton thesis advisor Don Morton representing Canada! 

 

“The telescopes went into operations in 2000. Astronomers using the Gemini telescopes have discovered that stars with planets have lower amounts of lithium than stars without and that ice volcanoes are replenishing the frozen surface of Pluto’s moon Charon. Gemini are still doing cutting edge science,” Wayne says. The international partners have changed several times over the intervening time, but the partnership is still governed by the same basic agreement crafted by Wayne and his U.K. and Canadian colleagues more than two decades ago. “I look back at Gemini as a high point of my career.” [Photo, right]

 

Another important effort in his program was working to improve the sharpness of telescope images by compensating for atmospheric disturbances. Laser beams are used to sample the atmosphere above the telescope, and the data, collected and analyzed in milliseconds, is used to control flexible mirrors to correct for the distortions. Benefits of the work, known as adaptive optics, are going into the next generation of telescopes (huge 30-meter ones), but also into ophthalmology, which has long been interested in correcting lightwave distortions created by fluid in the eye and other effects between the pupil and the retina.

 

A recent move from Annapolis to New Hampshire has been keeping Wayne busy, but he still reads proposals for NSF and advises it on how to launch and oversee large and long-term projects in the physical sciences. (Photo, left) “We have to pay continual, careful attention to the essential ecosystem that links long-term university research with the next generation of instruments, whether they are telescopes, accelerators, or super-conducting magnets,” he says.

 

Looking back on his career in science, Wayne’s first thought is about what he calls a “staggering” increase in knowledge over the past few decades. “The NSF fortunately has always enjoyed enormous bipartisan support; it has done very well,” he says. “Its budget has grown enormously, but it has not grown enough to keep up with science, with the projects envisioned and with the numbers of people working on science. The big problem that NSF now faces is getting the money to support the kinds of projects and research that scientists are capable of doing. And this is true not only of astronomy but also of materials sciences, particle accelerators, gravity wave detectors and more. The size of the challenge and the time scale to realize those challenges are enormous. ALMA took 30 years to develop, build, and deliver results; similarly for Gemini. Development costs are tremendous, but as well these huge and important projects, once built, are also costly to operate and maintain. So there’s a mismatch in funding available and what can be done. There’s no doubt that development is going to have to be international. In many ways the Europeans are leading the way. They have CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) and ESO (European Southern Observatory), both treaty-level organizations with country contributions based on GDP, and pool their resources for other projects as well. So they are setting the example – big projects are going to have to be international. Government and private and academic interests have to work together for funding and resources for the immense projects that need doing. I believe we are up to the task -- we always have been -- but the path forward is not particularly clear,” he says.

 

“One thing I have learned is that new science facilities spawn even more new science,” Wayne continues. “We have funded projects meant to do one thing and they always end up doing more. In astronomy, we’ve made huge telescopes, turned them to the sky and discovered things unexpected, undreamed of. The next generation of telescopes will tell us a lot about the formation of stars and the planets around them. I would be very surprised if what we learn will line up with our present understanding. We'll find out a great deal about the universe a couple of seconds after the Big Bang. Will it conform to what we think we know? I doubt it, and I hope not. We don’t know everything. That’s why scientists go into science; that’s the excitement that drives us!” 

 

Looking back on his career, Wayne muses, “It has been a blast! I have thought from the beginning that I can’t believe I have been paid to have so much fun!”

 

Wayne would like to emphasize that the opinions he expresses are his personal observations and do not reflect those of NSF.

 

Editor's post-script:  The recent photo of our Milky Way's giant Black Hole is another, very timely, example of the long-lead time nature of scientific research. The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) is a global effort that uses a technique known as Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI). VLBI development in the US was, in fact, funded by Wayne's program for many years at MIT Haystack Observatory and elsewhere back in the 1970's and 1980's. That eventually culminated in the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA). The construction of the VLBA began in February 1986 and was completed in May 1993. The VLBA is still producing first-rate science, and the techniques led directly to the EHT. Haystack Observatory is central to the EHT.


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