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Keep Garching on your Radar June 30, 2009

Posted by ASTRO Section Chair in : Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO), Mathematical and Computational Physics (MCP) , trackback Bookmark and Share

Astronomy, Cultural Astronomy, and NSBP at Garching, Germany
by Jarita C. Holbrook

Garching, which is outside of Munich, Germany, is the home of several institutes focused on astronomy and astrophysics.  There is the European Space Organization (ESO), the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE), and the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics (MPA).  Each of these Institutes have graduate students working on their Ph.D.s under the direction of their scientists, postdoctoral fellowships, and junior scientist positions.  In these ways they function like universities but without the classes and without the undergraduates.

The structure of each Max Planck Institute in terms of scientists is the following, there are usually three or four directors that are permanently employed and are given a number of faculty and postdoctoral positions under them to create their research group.  The director of the institute position rotates among these directors.  It is very difficult to get a permanent faculty position in astronomy, but entirely possible to get a postdoctoral fellowship of up to five years.

I visited Garching for the first time from June 2 – 5, 2009.  I was an official visitor along with my husband of MPE under director Reinhard Genzel who runs the Infrared and Submillimeter Astronomy group.  We arrived by overnight train from Amsterdam early Tuesday morning and wandered around lost in the building searching for Dr.  Genzel’s office.  On the fourth floor, we passed an open door labeled “Visitors Office” and inside was NSBP member Ed Thomas!

Dr. Thomas, who is a professor at Auburn University, was visiting the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics which shares the building with MPE.  He was collaborating on a dusty plasma project and gave a talk on June 3.  While we were together in Garching, we had a long discussion on the development of the field of plasma physics and the way that plasma physics is perceived by the larger physics community.  Studying Plasma Physics, though done in an experimental framework, requires classifying and characterizing behaviors as a means of understanding the physics.

For that last several years I have been doing survey research on the relationship of people to the night sky.  As a cultural astronomer, I am interested in what can be considered common knowledge or lay knowledge of astronomy and the night sky.  By lay knowledge, I mean non-expert knowledge.  I created a survey called “The Sky in Our Lives Survey” to quickly and systematically gather basic information about people’s sky knowledge.  On June 5, I gave a talk about my survey results to the scientists of MPE.

About 30 people attended the talk and Q & A lasted for about fifteen minutes.  From the questions, I realized that perhaps an introduction to cultural astronomy was needed.  It was clear to me from the questions that people thought that I was an astronomy education researcher rather than a cultural astronomer.  What is the difference? An astronomy education researcher researches ways to improve teaching astronomy and conveying astronomy concepts to students and to the public.  As part of their research they often survey people about what they understand about things considered to be fundamental astronomy.  In contrast, cultural astronomers focus on the much broader relationship between people and the sky from ancient times to the present.  We include studying astronomers through anthropology of astronomy and history of astronomy, but most of our work focuses on traditional sky knowledge around the world.  For example, as a postdoc I studied people who use celestial bodies for night navigation on the ocean.

The MPE audience wanted to know if people understood some very difficult astrophysical concepts, whereas my survey was designed for learning what is ‘traditional’ sky knowledge in various populations.  The survey is meant to be a tool for data collection to make cross cultural comparisons among people that have not necessarily been exposed to astrophysics.  This small misunderstanding aside, the MPE audience seemed to enjoy the presentation and the Q & A.

Because of the number of Institutes related to physics and astronomy, Garching is a place that should be on the radar screen for dual career couples.  I met two couples where one was employed by MPE and the other by ESO.  Also, with three astronomy communities in close proximity, there is a lot of circulation, collaboration, and support which makes for a unique astronomy environment.  The town of Garching is small and most of the scientists live in the surrounding area and in Munich.

What about being an African American in Germany?  I had the privilege of being a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG) in Berlin in 2001-2.  I remember thinking, “Germany?”  First, Germany today is not the Germany of WWII, so that myth needs to be let go.  It does still have its discrimination and prejudices but it is unlikely that these will be encountered in the academic communities in which we circulate.  In addition to my postdoc, I spent two summers living in Heidelberg in 2006 and 2007.  I like living in Germany because it is a well kept country (read clean) and things run on time.  They are environmentally conscious and have organic food stores that fit well with my vegetarian “do no harm” lifestyle.  Finally, when I am in Germany, I am there to work!  And, I am able to get amazing amounts of work done because of the fantastic academic support system.  When I am at MPIWG, I have access to every book that I need throughout Europe both digitally and in my hand within a few days.  I have children and the institutes that I have visited have always helped me arrange childcare freeing me to work normal hours without worry.  In addition, there are always small pots of money to travel to other parts of Germany to meet with other scholars for discussions and collaborations and general networking.

What are the down sides?  Sure, my fantasy job is to be a director of my own group at Max Planck Institute (or a Kavli Institute!), but I know it will probably always be a fantasy.  As I mentioned above it is very hard to get a permanent position and there is not a clear route to career advancement, i.e., a permanent position does not lead to being a director one day.  Also, in astronomy there are very few permanent positions and among these women are poorly represented.  Don’t bother to ask about minorities.

Back to the positives, their postdocs are considered very prestigious in the astronomy community as is getting a Ph.D. from one of their institutes.  Keep Garching on your radar.

Dr. Jarita Holbrook is a research scientist in cultural astronomy at the University of Arizona. She received her undergraduate degree in physics from Caltech and the Ph.D. degree in astronomy from the University of California-Santa Barbara. She was a postdoctoral research scholar in history of science at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. She is the co-editor or the recently published volume, African Cultural Astronomy.

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