The big sign to the left of the entrance to one of the most important scientific labs in the world reads: "Harvard Radcliffe Quadrangle Recreational Athletic Center." Tacked inconspicuously to a nearby fence is a smaller, humbly-lettered sign reading "Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics."
Given the size of the two signs, undergraduates may not realize that lying just behind the building where they play basketball and shoot pool is the main entrance to one of the premier astrophysics centers in the world.
With roughly 200 scientists, 200 technicians, observers, engineers, and programmers, and 200 administrative support staff members, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) has the potential to be imposing and impersonal.
However, a visit to the main facilities across from the Quad will show a very different reality. Walking through the halls, one sees casually clothed men and women aged 18 to 80 greeting each other with a joke or two. The doors to offices are nearly all open, with the busy researcher eager to take a break from the rigors of theoretical galactic dynamics analysis to chat with a fellow physicist or employee.
"The atmosphere here is pretty laid back," says Rachel A. Osten `96, an undergraduate researcher in high energy astrophysics. "Astronomers are very casual. Many wear jeans and burks."
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But within this casual setting, scientists are taking on some serious scientific challenges. The CfA's facilities include labs, machine shops, fully networked VAX and Sun computers, and the 60,000 volume astronomical library.
The CfA facilities also include the Whipple Observatory in Arizona, which houses among other equipment the Multiple Mirror Telescope used for interferometric observations of the stars. The Oak Ridge Observatory in Harvard, Mass., is also part of the CfA and features an 84-foot radio antenna currently being used to search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
But those who work at the center seem to agree that by far the most valuable resource the CfA provides is the people working there. "When you have a question, there's always somebody who's an expert in every field," says Aaron J. Romanowsky, a first year graduate student working on theoretical galactic dynamics.
John Cobuzzi, a technician at the CfA, helps to develop mirros for a NASA X-ray studying telescope. Nestled in a lab filled with imposing rhinoceros-sized equipment designed to measure iridium lenses, Cobuzzi says the best thing about the CfA is "the "people here, the living knowledge."
He adds more excitedly, "there are people here who were working on the Apollo [lunar landing] project~. Just shows you the depth of personal knowledge available here."
Students in both the Physics and Astronomy and Astrophysics departments are encouraged to pursue research at the center for their junior and senior projects. For example, Cynthia B. Phillips '95 is now mapping the geology of Venus, while Andrea M. Gilbert '95 is working on modelling the galactic magnetic field.
Rather than pursue an independent project, many undergraduate students serve as assistants to the professional researchers. Osten works with a group that does "mostly solar physics." She says a term-time job "is a pretty sweet deal" and allows her to make her own hours.
Michael D. Hartl '96 works term-time in an X-ray solar astronomy group at the center. Though Hartl does not receive course credit for the job, he says he loves the "friendly community" atmosphere at the center and its proximity to the Quad where he lives.