I don't think I ever particularly planned to be an astronomer, nor did I ever plan or expect to keep a blog describing my experiences as I (hopefully) pursue a career in astronomy. My 13 year old self, who was told by her year 9 physics teacher that she would be an excellent fit for the job and should pursue it, would be thrilled. My 21 year old self (barely 3 years ago) would probably be disappointed.
By the end of my third year of university, I was determined to pursue a career in mathematical physics - specifically conformal field theory. Now I look back on this dream with horror, and relief it didn't work out. I probably would have burnt out quickly - the environment amongst my cohort in math was anything but conducive to good mental health. What's more, I was never really cut out for a career in "true" theoretical math or physics. Of course I only discovered this after being (at the time, heartbreakingly) told that the supervisor I planned on working with would not be able to supervise me, returning to my physics project on the dynamics of stars in the Galactic Center and spending 6 months or more feeling like a failure. My project was too simple, and I was not cut out to be a theorist.
Two things I've discovered now are not true: I've since won "best science talk" awards for my honors research at my new university, and the research found me two of my current PhD supervisors. What's more, I was definitely cut out to be a theorist AND an observer (what we call experimental physics in astronomy). It just took me a while to realize how.
A month ago, I was standing under the night sky in the Australian outback, as the "Astronomer in Residence" for CAASTRO's wonderful outreach program - I'll write more about this in another blog post. A kid - about 8 years old - wandered up to me, and as we watched Mars rise over the horizon, he asked me "what's a white hole?"
Now that's a hell of a question to ask when you're 8. When I was 8, I loved space, but Prof. Andrea Ghez's team at UCLA had barely discovered the S-star cluster orbiting the mysterious radio source SGR A* (which we now know is a supermassive black hole). YouTube definitely wasn't a thing, and none of my astronomy books mentioned such a thing. Honestly, that kid had me stumped. I still don't know what a white hole is. But I did some googling, and we discussed it, and when the kid wandered off satisfied, I had a sudden lightbulb moment.
Standing in the desert while a whole bunch of people peered through telescopes at globular clusters, I realized why I do the work I'm doing.
We've observed a lot of things about our universe we cannot explain. In fact, we've observed lots of things about our Galaxy we cannot explain. But the main thing is, we've seen them. When I was in my fourth year of my physics degree, I was terrified I would fail quantum mechanics. I shared this with one of the professors I happened to be working with in the undergraduate lab, as a TA. As we walked around, checking on students and showing them how to use beautiful antique travelling microscopes, the professor turned to me, straightened his waistcoat, and said "If anything can happen in the universe, it is mandatory." I passed quantum mechanics with a B, and went on to receive an A in his quantum field theory class.
That phrase stuck with me. And that is why I chose to remain in astronomy after my honors degree. Because if we observe something, it is absolutely mandatory we have an explanation for it. There's something far more satisfying (for me personally) about spending 3, 5 or 50 years searching for the explanation for why something is so, as opposed to prophesying the existence of white holes from a piece of paper. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with the latter - there isn't - but it sure as hell doesn't make my heart sing.
On my journey to maybe explain a small part of the weirdness we observe in our universe, I constantly encounter bureaucratic nightmares (FermiLab passwords must be changed every six months, contain blood magic curses and at least 4 types of unicode characters), empty instant coffee jars, colloquia from hell and problems I feel, in the moment, I will be unable to ever solve. These local minima, as my supervisor calls them, can be overwhelming. But it's nice to be able to look in from the outside: astronomy is a thrilling job that many would love to have. I hope I can share a lot of the ups, some of the downs and in doing so, keep ahold of the excitement that lead me here in the first place. I am both a theorist and an observer, and for now I am an astronomer.