By Monica Young

I’ve invited friends over to see the so-called supermoon. I know that this particular full Moon isn’t noticeably bigger than any other month, but why not take advantage of the hype? I now have two five-year-olds, a two-year-old, and even a one-year-old out in the dark, all of them vying for turns at my telescope.
The hands-on experience is a far cry from my graduate school days, many of which were spent at a computer analyzing thousands of X-ray sources and examining their spectra. I pored over images from the XMM-Newton telescope, in which 58 gold-plated mirrors nestle inside each other like layers of an onion, each one doing its part to focus incoming X-rays. The photons the spacecraft captured told stories of an exotic universe.
In the sources I studied, a precious few X-rays had made their way to Earth from the hot, innermost regions of the gas disks around supermassive black holes — the last glow of material falling into the gravitational pit. For each source, I arranged those photons into a spectrum. A single spectrum of a faraway active galactic nucleus is like a cipher; it reveals very little about its source. But if you collect thousands of such spectra, they begin to tell a story about the relationship between the gas that feeds a black hole and the gas that escapes.
During graduate school, I mastered radiative processes and learned how quantum effects could reveal themselves in spectral lines. But I didn’t know the constellations. In fact, I struggled to learn the basic patterns of the stars on the fly, as I taught them during night labs to intro-level astronomy students. If I had ever told the students that I knew only a little more than them, they would have been surprised — surely an astronomer would have to know the stars?
Yet gazing up at the sky, while still very much in practice among the pros, seems to be a lesser part of the field’s future. As ever-bigger telescopes scan the sky and collect petabytes of data across the electromagnetic spectrum, the experience of professional astronomy has become more a matter of data analysis than data collection.
Is that a bad thing? Walt Whitman may think so, but I don’t. My favorite part of astronomy — and the part I miss the most now that I no longer do research for a living — was the analysis: that moment when the data begin to take shape and tell a visual story of the physics responsible for far-off happenings.
Still, as I stand shivering in the “mystical moist night-air” and talk with my kids and their friends about what they see on the Moon, their excitement is contagious. “It has lots of circles!” they cry, as they glimpse for the first time the craters that dot the lunar surface. Though I’m sure not going to get any “perfect silence” tonight, it’s nevertheless a good time for me to experience the sky with new eyes.



headshot1Dr. Monica Young earned her Ph.D. researching the behavior of supermassive black holes in distant galaxies. In 2012, she joined the talented team at Sky & Telescope, where as Web Editor, she edits, writes, and commissions web news stories and magazine feature articles.