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Electronic Newsletter September-October 2003

An interview with Steve Torchinsky: CSA astronomer joins Arecibo deep space telescope facility

Steve Torchinsky, a Canadian Space Agency (CSA) Astronomer, left the CSA in late August to join the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Apogee conducted an interview with Mr. Torchinsky shortly after his departure.

Why did you decided to study astronomy?

From a very early age, I was always curious about everything around me. I used to ask millions of questions all the time. The reason I chose astronomy instead of any other topic probably goes back to the time when I was about ten or eleven years old. The librarian at the school, Mrs. Dempster, handed me a book saying simply "here, try this. I think you'll like it." It was a science fiction book, and since that time I've been fascinated with space. By the time I was in high school, I knew I wanted to be an astrophysicist, and you can even see it listed there in my high school yearbook!

What has been your career path until now?

My education in astrophysics didn't follow the normal path. Most researchers in Astronomy and Astrophysics did their undergraduate degrees in Physics or Mathematics, and followed that up with a Masters and PhD in Physics and Astronomy. When I was applying to university for my undergraduate degree, I went to visit the departments at McGill in Physics and in Mechanical Engineering. The Engineering professor was full of excitement and enthusiasm, while the Physics professor was completely boring. I decided to go with Mechanical Engineering. My high school physics teacher had told me that it wouldn't matter which undergraduate degree I did. He said I would always be able to do astrophysics at the PhD level. This turned out to be mostly true, but the Engineering degree certainly had a large influence on the course of my career afterwards!

After graduating from McGill in Mechanical Engineering, I went to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and spent four years there working on my PhD in Astronomy. With my Engineering background, I was well suited to work on instrumentation for Astronomy. My PhD project included the design of part of a submillimetre-wave camera which is still in operation on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii.

The other part of my PhD was work in the modelling and observations of gravitational lensing by clusters of galaxies. Gravity can bend light, and the large mass found in a group of galaxies has a significant effect on the light passing through it from behind. This effect can be used to amplify the light from extremely distant sources, and one can say that we are using the biggest telescope in the universe when we do that!

I completed my PhD in 1991, and have held several positions since that time. I was a Research Associate with the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics which is part of the National Research Council of Canada. In 1995, I began working in Space Astronomy when I was sent by the Canadian Space Agency to work in Sweden at Chalmers University of Technology. I lived in Sweden for nearly five years, working on the the radiometer instrument of the Odin satellite. Odin was launched in 2001 and continues to operate well. I returned to Canada in 1999, after the Odin radiometer was delivered. For three years I was at the University of Calgary working with the Canadian Principle Investigator for Odin Astronomy. While I was in Calgary, I was an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the physics department. Just over a year ago, I left Calgary and joined the CSA in St-Hubert to be the Program Scientist for Space Astronomy. I spent a year at CSA headquarters until the opportunity arose for me to join the academic staff of Cornell University, and to work at the Arecibo Observatory.

How did you obtain that position? (headhunters, open competition?)

For many years I have thought about working at Arecibo. Arecibo is the world's largest telescope and has made great contributions to Astronomy, including research that led to the Nobel prize in Physics in 1993.

The former director of Arecibo is a scientist who has worked in the area of quasi-optical design, among other things. He was familiar with my work, especially with my contribution to Odin. When I heard that Arecibo was looking for someone to lead the ALFA project, I decided to ask about it. It was a short time later that I had an offer from Cornell University to join the team at Arecibo!

What will be your job at Arecibo?

At Arecibo, we are building a new instrument which will be a camera working at radio wavelengths. It is called ALFA: The Arecibo L-Band Feed Array. Up to now, Arecibo, like nearly all radiotelescopes, operates with single-pixel receivers. That means that the giant telescope is focussed on only one spot on the sky. To make a map, we must point the telescope at different spots on the sky, one by one, and put them all together in a map. When ALFA is working, we will gather data from seven spots on the sky at a time, so the mapping will be seven times faster. But each pixel gives us more than just the amount of radio energy at that spot, we also get all the information of a spectrum of radio signals. There will be an enormous amount of data produced by ALFA!

I am now in charge of the team building the ALFA instrument. We are about ten people at Arecibo who are working on ALFA, and there are a few others at Cornell University. We also have collaborators at the Australia National Telescope Facility. ALFA will be used by Astronomers worldwide, including quite a few in Canada who are watching the progress of ALFA. Among them are scientists at McGill University, Université Laval, and the University of Calgary.

Are there specific subjects of interest that you would personally like to study with this extremely powerful telescope?

There was a time in the Universe when there were no stars. Everything was dark and cold before the first stars were formed. We call that the "Cosmic Dark Ages". The only material in the universe at that time was hydrogen, plus a little bit of some slightly heavier elements like deuterium and lithium. It was very cold so there was very little radiation from the hydrogen, but there was so much hydrogen, that it may still be possible to detect something from that time. This is a very difficult experiment, and it may even be beyond the capabilities of Arecibo. But it would be very interesting to detect this signal from a time before there were stars in the universe.

What advice would you give to young amateur astronomers who wish to pursue a career in astronomy?

I always give the same advice to young people who are making decisions about their future career. You should do what interests you most. Don't worry about the future job market. If you are interested in what you are doing, and if you are enthusiastic about your subject, you will certainly find a place in a research institute somewhere. But you must be willing to travel! For those potential future astrophysicists and astronomers, I would say you should do a degree in physics and take some courses in Astronomy. It's also a good idea to move to a different university for your doctorate. It's important to learn from many people, and you can best do that by going to different universities.

Do you think you will come back to Canada someday to pursue your career?

Every stage of my career has come as a surprise to me. I have come to live in places that a year earlier I would never have imagined possible. For now, I am committed to Arecibo for three years, but after that time I may well return to Canada. It depends what opportunities will present themselves in three years time, and it's impossible to predict!

Steve Torchinsy at the Arecibo Observatory. The big dome of the Gregorian receiver cabin is visible at the top of the picture. The instruments are placed in this dome which is suspended by cables 137m above the main dish of the telescope. There are three towers which carry the cables. One of them can be seen at the top left of the picture. A portion of the dish is visible at the bottom of the picture. The dish has a diameter of 305m and actually fills the valley!

Steve Torchinsky at the top of the Arecibo receiver dome

The Arecibo Observatory. The big dome of the Gregorian receiver cabin is visible at the top of the picture. 

Updated: 2003/10/09
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