SIRTF Profiles: William B. Latter
SIRTF Science Center Scientist
I am the Instrument Support Team Lead for the Multiband Imaging Photometer for SIRTF (MIPS) at the SIRTF Science Center on the campus of the California Institute of Technology. My day-to-day work life is concerned with preparing to operate this instrument for the astronomical community in the best and most efficient way possible. This includes oversight of the instrument commanding (on, off, take data, do this, do that ...) and its interactions with the Observatory systems, all the way through to the final automated processing of the science data, and supporting the astronomical community and the public at large to understand the MIPS instrument.
Instrument support is my primary role right now, but I am also a research astrophysicist. I study chemical processes in rapidly evolving astrophysical systems; early and late stages of stellar evolution including chemical processes in circumstellar envelopes of mass-losing stars, and the mass-loss process; planetary nebula formation, evolution, and chemistry. The study of atomic and molecular processes is central to our grasp of the diverse conditions found within interstellar and circumstellar space. An example of some of this work (with the Hubble Space Telescope) can be found at http://spider.ipac.caltech.edu/staff/latter/N7027description.html
How did I get here? How does one become an astronomer? These are questions I am often asked. There is no single answer. No, I have not had a lifelong relationship with the sky as have many of my colleagues – growing up under the bright, hazy skies over Los Angeles is not something that generally inspires awe. My path has definitely been long and bumpy. As Forrest Gump might say "You can tell a lot about a person from their shoes. I have worn many shoes." I committed to college and the work toward a PhD. rather late in life. Before and after barely graduating from high school, I worked as a truck driver, for a number of years as an auto repair technician (a.k.a. mechanic) as a carburetion and tune-up specialist, auto parts store counterman, deck hand on sport fishing boats, and briefly as a pit crew member for a once famed AA Fuel Dragster, just to cite a few.
During all of this time, I never stopped going to school by taking night courses at Santa Monica College. Many things happened to change my life, but two are most apparent to me – I saw for the first time Saturn and her rings through a tiny telescope, and I had a great teacher. Heywood Sobel (then of Santa Monica College) took my rambling interests and turned them into a passion for astrophysics. As I have heard from so many others, it was a teacher who made the difference.
Nowdays, in addition to work, I actively participate in long distance running, equestrian activities, and I volunteer for a fabulous program called Move a Child Higher (or MACH1). This is a program of therapeutic horseback riding designed to help children with disabilities improve their physical and cognitive skills – see http://www.moveachildhigher.org/