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
Why did you decided to study astronomy?
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?
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!
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?)
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
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?
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?
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?
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?
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!