Choosing the Stars Over the Stock Exchange

Robert P. Kirshner is Harvard College Professor of Astronomy and Clowes Professor of Science at Harvard University. He graduated from Harvard College in 1970 and received a Ph.D. in Astronomy at Caltech. He was a postdoc at the Kitt Peak National Observatory, and was on the faculty at the University of Michigan for 9 years. In 1986, he moved to the Harvard Astronomy Department. He served as Chairman of the Department from 1990-1997 and as the head of the Optical and Infrared Division of the CfA from 1997-2003.

Professor Kirshner is an author of over 200 research papers dealing with supernovae and observational cosmology. His work with the "High-Z Supernova Team" on the acceleration of the universe was dubbed the "Science Breakthrough of the Year for 1998" by Science Magazine. Kirshner and the High-Z Team shared in the Gruber Prize for Cosmology in 2007. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1998 and the American Philosophical Society in 2004. He served as President of the American Astronomical Society from 2003-2005. Kirshner's popular-level book "The Extravagant Universe: Exploding Stars, Dark Energy, and the Accelerating Cosmos" won the AAP Award for Best Professional/Scholarly Book in Physics and Astronomy and was a Finalist for the 2003 Aventis Prize.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: What made you decide to become a physicist? 

Robert Kirshner: Well, when I was in high school, I grew up in suburban Boston out in Sudbury, and it was a good high school. I was good at math and I was good in science. I had a neighbor who had a telescope and he had a little trouble setting it up, and so he asked if I wanted to help him do that. And we figured out how to point the axle at the North Pole and how to do all those things. And it was kind of exciting to look through a telescope and see things. What I did not understand at that point was there was actually something to do. It wasn’t just about seeing them and just about kind of knowing or looking at a natural history book, that you really could understand what those objects were. That didn’t come to me for a while until I was in high school and I remember reading books; reading books that Fred Hoyle had written; reading books that George Gamoff had written. You know popular science books that tried to bring you up to speed on what scientists were thinking. And that really got me going. That really got me going. 

So, when I got to college, I came here to Harvard, as a freshman, I took a freshman seminar that was about astronomy and I’ve never really looked back. And I’d written a book. So, you know, maybe some kid will read it and would have made a perfectly good investment banker but goes astray and becomes an astronomer.

Recorded on February 17, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen



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