NOAO < ASTRONOMERS < STAFFDIR < Staff Profile: Dick Joyce

Conversation with Dick Joyce (NOAO Scientist)

How did you become an astronomer, Dick?

My father was a research chemist for DuPont and dragged me into the lab from an early age on. Both my parents encouraged me and my sister to learn about the world around us by observing and reading. Dinner guests included his colleagues from DuPont and others such as Charles Kittel (physics, Berkeley) and John Wheeler. When I was 6 we moved to a rural area where the dark skies encouraged curiosity about astronomy.

When I was 10, I read a fascinating book written by an airplane navigator in the pre-radar era when celestial navigation was the only reliable technique on trans-oceanic flights. By coincidence, my 6th grade teacher had been a naval navigator who (on the side) taught me celestial navigation, which required me to learn where the stars were. I even shot a four-star fix and determined the location of my front yard.

When I was 12, I requested an upgrade from my 50 mm refractor to a larger aperture (astronomer instincts start early). My father suggested (or insisted) that building a telescope would be a good idea. Over the next year I learned how to grind, polish, and do optical testing on the mirror, as well as helping my father build the telescope mount with various machine tools. Yes, it worked.

A truly inspirational professor in my Physics 101 class at Williams College led me to change my major from chemistry to physics. The Williams education was sufficient to get me into the graduate program at Berkeley. At Berkeley, I worked on low-temperature far-infrared solid state physics, using the new generation of detectors which were beginning to be used for the first serious astronomical observations. No one was hiring physicists at the time I was writing my thesis. One day I got a call from Roger Knacke, an ex-physics grad student who jumped ship to the astronomy department and had just been hired by Steve Strom, who was setting up an astronomy program at Stony Brook. Roger said they had money for a postdoc to work on infrared instrumentation and was I interested. I said yes.

What do you do at NOAO?

I support a number of infrared instruments, the FLAMINGOS infrared spectrograph for the Gemini telescope, the WHIRC infrared camera on the WIYN telescope, and the SQIID infrared imager at the 4-m Mayall telescope). I also assist as telescope scientist for both the 2.1-m and 4-m telescopes. I actually enjoy both the science and functional aspects of the job, although I seem to be able to shake loose only limited time for the science aspects.

What are you passionate about?

Developing and building instrumentation is something I take great pleasure in, as it appeals to my fundamental engineering instincts and my hands-on heritage as a grad student in experimental physics.

How long have you worked at NOAO and how have you contributed to its mission?

I came to NOAO (which was then just the Kitt Peak National Observatory) in 1973 to help develop instrumentation in the then-relatively-new field of infrared astronomy. My physics background in infrared detectors was well-suited to this and was common to many of the early generation of infrared astronomers such as Fred Gillett and Frank Low. I helped develop many of the early infrared instruments, which utilized a single element (!) detector. In the mid-1980s, the first IR array detectors became available, and Al Fowler was a major factor in getting NOAO into the array game. Infrared imagers and spectrographs such as IRIM, CRSP, and SQIID followed. They took advantage of larger detector formats and incorporated new technology such as cryocoolers. I was a co-project scientist on GNIRS, the near-infrared spectrograph built by NOAO for the Gemini telescopes. I am currently the instrument scientist for the WHIRC imager on WIYN.

What skills do you find are important in doing your job?

A combination of years of accumulated engineering and technical heritage dating back to my grad student laboratory experience (or before!) and experiences gained from having worked on some large projects such as GNIRS. The current generation of astronomical instrumentation is far removed in both cost and complexity from the instruments of 30 years ago, and factors such as the politics of funding, project management, and teamwork among the participants are as important as the science and engineering aspects. Serving on review committees for other large astronomical instruments has been a valuable learning experience as well.

Why did you decide to work at NOAO?

Because they offered me a job. Seriously. I applied to a number of institutions in both physics and astronomy (I was a postdoc at Stony Brook at the time), and Fred Gillett invited me out for an interview. Instead of the astronomer position for which I had applied, they offered me an engineering physicist position to develop infrared instrumentation. I said yes.