"Astronomese" -- Life on the Inside, As Told by an Intern
Written by Sara Leeper, Spitzer Science Center
January 28, 2005
|The Keith Spalding Building on the Caltech Campus, home of the Spitzer Science Center
From the outside, Keith Spalding looks like any other concrete administration building. However, the moment the automatic doors swing open, you enter a world which houses some of the brightest thinkers who live with their eyes to the sky. They work to interpret astronomical data into language and terms people like myself can understand and learn to appreciate.
Today is my first day working as an intern public affairs assistant at the Spitzer Center at the California Institute of Technology. And while I share the passion for astronomy that many others do here, most of their work and language is foreign to me. The task of walking down the hall takes a bit longer for me as I glance at the amazing astronomy photographs and illustrations that line the walls. I have the sneaking suspicion the researchers and administrative staff that work here can tell I'm a visitor because my eyes widen with curiosity as I peer into each work station and wonder what project they are working on.
Let me backtrack some and introduce myself. I am a sophomore at the University of Southern California and am majoring in public relations. My hometown is Scottsdale, Ariz., where my parents and younger brother live. I am enjoying my time as a Trojan (beaming with pride in our recent National College Football Championship) but am happy to get off campus two days a week to commute to Caltech's campus in Pasadena. This public affairs position sparked my interest because it gives me the chance to take an active role in communicating research findings about our universe. I have had one eye to the sky since I was a little girl and my dad bought a family telescope. I can't tell you how many times I have watched Contact, among other science fiction space flicks!
As with any new position, the first day can be a bit daunting as you learn the ins and outs and attempt to create a visual map of how to get back to your workstation from any point on any other floor in the building. Fortunately, I have the NASA and Spitzer logos and pictures lining the walls as visual cues!
Once I went through a tour of the building and shook hands with the many who work here, I got settled at one of my two desks. One day a week, I share an office with two of the graphic designers in charge of creating the beautiful photos and illustrations that Spitzer produces. They, like many of the other astronomers here, are very friendly and have already made me laugh a few times!
Having very little background, besides an intro college course in astronomy, I started navigating through Spitzer's site and acquainting myself with all the acronyms that I have already heard many of my colleagues rambling off -- AORs, DQAs, SEDs. The list could go on forever, I'm afraid. My goal is to learn their astronomy speak, which the assistant director for public affairs cleverly referred to as "astronomese," and spout these terms right back to the astronomers with the intention of communicating intelligently. (Right now I just have a blank look on my face and nod repeatedly up and down in an effort to show that I am attempting to process everything they are telling me!)
What exactly does the Spitzer Space Telescope do? The most basic answer that I can give right now is that it uses infrared technology to map out and detect heat in space radiating from objects, including those not visible to the human eye. Because it is in orbit in space, it can capture infrared that is untraceable through earth's atmosphere. As a cousin observatory to Hubble, it is the largest infrared space telescope and its data is giving astronomers insights into the formation of planets, stars and even galaxies. There is much more that this telescope is capable of, and I hope to learn and more importantly understand more of that every day.
Halfway through my online inquiries, I was brought up to my second office, a rather large cubicle located behind the doors of a fingerprint-detecting security system. Yes, you can imagine my excitement! I got to add my fingerprint to the list of others who were allowed in this research area of the building. Thanks to Hollywood, I could feel my inner child give a little jump in being able to receive an "access granted" message!
The day of administrative set-up was ending. I hadn't got much of a chance to get started on any communication projects with the team's astronomers, but I had learned much more about Spitzer and how things run. Walking out of the Keith Spalding building I had a different feeling than when I had first stepped in. Not only did I have a key to the building, an ID badge, and a parking pass, but I also knew some of the amazing processes that were going on inside that concrete building.