The gorgeous space images NASA shares combine science with the art of data visualization. Ask Science chatted with Dr. Robert Hurt to learn how he made a career of bringing celestial objects to life visually.
I’m here with Dr Robert Hurt, a Senior Scientist at Caltech/IPAC. Robert is an astrophysicist, a visualization expert, a podcaster, a film director … he wears many hats! Today, what I want to talk to him about is how he cleverly created a career that combines the expertise he has gained from a technical degree with creative pursuits. And, of course, I am particularly excited to chat with Robert because I worked with him not too long ago on a project for NASA. I happen to know he always has interesting stories to tell.
Thank you for being here Robert!
Yeah, good to catch up! It’s nice to hear your voice.
Let’s start somewhere near the beginning. What did you study in school and how did you know you want to be an astronomer?
If you go all the way back, I spent most of my academic career trying really hard to not be an astronomer. I always loved astronomy, but in high school I thought I should do something practical like architecture. But when I got into science classes I found I really had an affinity for chemistry and physics so I decided I was going to be a chemistry major in college because that would be a practical hireable career. And by the time I got to organic chemistry I discovered I completely detested organic chemistry.
And physics had always been fun. So I switched over and became a physics major in undergrad. And then, by the time I was approaching my senior year, I was thinking, Well, I guess this is still working so I probably will just go on to grad school, too. Then I had to, for my graduate school application, figure out exactly which field of physics I wanted to be in which I had not been exposed to. And I picked plasma physics because that would be the future–fusion power! Then I got to UCLA in grad school in the plasma physics department and discovered I hated plasma physics.
And so, to keep myself occupied, I took some astronomy courses and again took to them as I always had and realized if I’m going to spend 6 some years of my life in graduate school, I might as well do it in a field I really enjoy. And that’s how I ended finally back into astrophysics where I belonged all along.
Sometimes it’s about figuring out what you don’t want to do in order to get at what you do want to do.
Yeah, sometimes just trying to make the practical over where you have the passion isn’t always the right choice.