Conversation with Andrei Tokovinin (NOAO Astronomer)
How did you become an astronomer, Andrei, and what motivates you?
I wanted to become an astronomer since I was 12. All the usual stages were passed, from observations (of whatever there was to observe) to reading popular literature, polishing mirrors for my own telescope and, eventually, joining the ranks of professional astronomers. I still love astronomy, but I am no longer an “amateur astronomer” and feel nothing when the Moon is in conjunction with Venus. My driver today is different: to understand the physics and, if possible, the origin of multiple stellar systems.
How did you come to work at NOAO?
After getting my PhD at the Physics Department of Moscow University, I worked for 20 years at the Sternberg Institute in Moscow, building new instruments and observing in Central Asia and in Crimea. I visited for short (or not so short) periods in France and at ESO in Garching. In 2001, I finally settled at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile, with my wife, leaving behind in Moscow my two grown-up sons.
What are you doing currently at NOAO?
My main responsibility at NOAO is developing a new adaptive optics (AO) system for the Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research (SOAR) 4-m telescope. Unlike most current AO systems, this instrument will improve the image quality in the visible and help ground-based astronomers make observations that come closer to the high angular resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope. My instrument may help bring some (but not all) of the fame from the Hubble Space Telescope back to Earth.
I am also developing new site-testing instrumentation, in close collaboration with my former colleagues from the Sternberg Institute and ESO. Recently, I got involved again in echelle spectroscopy by building an instrument that Debra Fischer is using to find terrestrial planets in the Alpha Cen binary.
What do you like about your job?
For me, the appeal of working at CTIO/NOAO is in doing interesting and new stuff in instrumentation (we have some excellent engineers and a good workshop) and thus being in the middle of real astronomical “action”. That said, like everyone else, I spend most of my time in front of computer the screen, writing documents or programming some simulation or data reduction tasks. Another plus is, yes, I don’t have to teach!
What do you think about working and living in La Serena?
I like the regular and healthy life in La Serena: good food, good air, no traffic jams or long commuting. Mountains and ocean provide the weekend entertainment. The cable TV is everywhere the same. Yearly, an air ticket to Europe is paid by my employers to breathe a different air during vacations, in addition to the conference trips.