Conversation with Knut Olsen (NOAO Astronomer)
How did you become interested in astronomy, Knut?
When I was 5 years old, I saw a small telescope in a toy store while visiting the United States from Norway. I remember marveling at the possibility, as I saw it, of exploring distant worlds through this instrument. Later I was vaguely disappointed that stars seen through a telescope are still just points. But I was also amazed that pointing the telescope at the faint glow of the Milky Way revealed thousands of stars unresolved by my naked eye. I enjoy using this fact today in my research on stellar populations in nearby galaxies.
As an undergraduate student, I majored in physics, while taking a few astronomy classes on the side. Astronomy struck me as the most interesting physical science. It allows us to project the power of our imaginations through physics over vast distances, which are otherwise completely inaccessible to us.
What do you do at NOAO? What are you currently passionate about?
My research uses observations of resolved stellar populations in nearby galaxies to understand how galaxies form and evolve. I am particularly passionate about the history of galaxy disks, as their properties are sensitive to the underlying physics. I think they will reveal many surprises. One of my favorite current projects is a study of the star formation history of the bulge and disk of the Andromeda galaxy (M31) using near-infrared imaging with adaptive optics. Another favorite is a dynamical study of the disk of the Large Magellanic Cloud and its tidal streamers using multi-object spectroscopy of ~5000 evolved stars.
I contribute to the NOAO mission by supporting US astronomers who use the Gemini telescopes. I support observers who use the Near Infrared Imager and Spectrometer (NIRI), the Near-infrared Integral Field Spectrometer (NIFS), and the Gemini Multi-object Spectrograph (GMOS). I am involved with future facilities such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) project, and I am a member of the Science Working Group for the Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope (GSMT). I am also eager to help develop a new highly multiplexed spectroscopic capability for the US community.
How long have you worked at NOAO and how have you contributed to NOAO’s mission in the past?
I have worked at NOAO for 10 years, including a year as a postdoc before taking a position as a staff astronomer. For the first eight years at NOAO I lived and worked in La Serena in Chile; I am now based in Tucson.
I have found a strong synergy between my work in support of the NOAO mission and my own research. In Chile, I was first the instrument scientist for the RC spectrograph at the 1.5-m telescope on Cerro Tololo. I later did the same for the Hydra multiobject fiber spectrograph on the 4-m Blanco telescope. I was familiar with both instruments because I had used them in my research. I also supported the Mosaic II camera on the Blanco telescope.
For my field of research, high angular resolution is very important, so I was very keen to become involved in planning for the next generation large ground-based telescope. This led to my participation in planning for the 30-m aperture GSMT. I also recognize the value of a large field of view for stellar populations research. So I have also contributed to the science case for the LSST. I find that working on science cases for future facilities is helpful in guiding my own research. I’m excited by the ability of ground-based adaptive optics to study the bulges and disks of nearby galaxies, mainly because I have been thinking about the science case for a GSMT.
In recent years, the Gemini telescopes have figured heavily into my research plans. This led me to shift the emphasis of my functional work to supporting the instruments on the Gemini telescopes.
Why did you decide to work at NOAO? What do you like about your job?
I decided to work for NOAO in Chile partly out of the desire for an adventure, partly because several new facilities were coming to Chile at the time (the Gemini South telescope, the Very Large Telescope, and the Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research), and partly because of NOAO’s reputation as an excellent place to work. The most enjoyable parts of my job are the close involvement with technical aspects of observational astronomy (a feeling of being “where the rubber meets the road”), the opportunity to meet visiting astronomers, being involved in initiatives of national importance to astronomy, and the opportunity to work with students.
What do you think about working and living in La Serena?
Working at NOAO in La Serena has the feeling of being a close-knit family with a shared purpose. The warmth of Chilean culture contributes to this feeling, while living amongst other expats can lead to friendships that you might not otherwise have formed. It also leads to friendships with visiting astronomers, who are generally grateful for the chance to get a local’s perspective on Chilean culture. There are also many excellent places to visit in Chile and the surrounding countries, which most people never get the chance to see. Some of my favorite trips were to Easter Island, the southern island of Chiloé, the arid northern Atacama desert, and the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru.