Distinguished Visiting Scientist
From the Apollo missions to the present, Dr. Marcia Neugebauer has been a pioneer in solar wind research. At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, she is a co-investigator in the Genesis mission to collect samples of the solar wind and return them to Earth for analysis. Read more about Dr. Neugebauer's cutting-edge work in her autobiographical article from The Journal of Geophysical Research, "Pioneers of Space Physics: A Career in the Solar Wind."
The following interview occurred January 18, 1999, between Distinguished Visiting Scientist Marcia Neugebauer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and Senior Associate Alice Krueger, Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory:
A. K. Your title at JPL is "Distinguished Visiting Scientist." What does that mean?
M.N. I got that title when I officially retired from JPL in November of 1996. I didn't want to drop out of scientific work completely, so I still work at JPL about half time.
A.K. What is your role in the Genesis mission?
M.N. I am the person who has the most background in studying the solar wind. Don Burnett and Roger Wiens know a lot about the isotope ratios, the chemistry of the solar system. I know more about how the solar wind flows, the physics. The solar wind is not the same every day. How are we going to accommodate that in our collection procedures? We need to know what the solar wind is doing to put the correct voltage on the concentrator and to deploy the right collectors.
A.K. What new science understanding will this mission provide? Why is this important?
M.N. All past missions I've worked on were space physics missions dedicated to finding out what the sun puts out, how much, how fast, the effects of different types of solar activity, etc. Genesis is the first space mission that concentrates on the planetary science aspects of the sun and solar wind. It will tell us, in detail, what the sun is made of, and thus, what was the starting material from which the solar system was built?
A.K. How would you compare what is and is not known about the sun and solar wind in terms of physics and chemistry?
M.N. There is a lot more to find out about what the sun is made of. If you look up tables of solar composition, you will see that much of the information is based on the composition of meteorites, whose composition is assumed to be similar to that of the sun. Solar isotopic ratios are especially poorly known. Part of this is because it is not possible to do good solar spectroscopy for many elements and isotopes. So while solar chemistry is rather poorly known, the physics is better known. There are still some questions, however, of the degree to which the solar wind is the same as the average surface composition of the sun. We must use our understanding of the physics of the sun and the solar wind to know how to correct the data from the Genesis samples for processes that might change the solar wind composition.
A.K. What else do you do at JPL and elsewhere?
M.N. When I retired, I resigned from all my committees and management duties. Those jobs had consumed most of my time and had stopped being fun. Now I have more time for research than before. Right now my work for Genesis isn't really research, but it enables research in the future.
I also work on analyzing solar wind data acquired by the Ulysses and other space missions.
A.K. What is your everyday work life like?
M.N. I go in to JPL about half time. I often get there about 11:30, when it is easier to find a parking space. Then I work on the project of the moment. I can carry work back and forth between my computers at JPL and at home. I've just finished writing a chapter of a book on the results of the Ulysses mission. I'm also working with people from other institutions on x-rays from comets.
This comet x-ray business is interesting. A colleague from the University of Kansas came up with what I think is the correct explanation for how heavy ions in the solar wind cause Comet Hyakutake and other active comets to emit x-rays.
A.K. Are there any barriers to your work at the present time?
M.N. Well, there are not enough hours in the day. Actually my life is pretty good right now. I sometimes wish I was smarter and could find more right answers in among the wrong answers.
A.K. What kind of education and career path led you to become a scientist?
M.N. I always liked science and math. I was better in those subjects than in subjects such as languages. Perhaps because I'd rather figure things out than memorize words, names, or facts. My father had taught me to use a slide rule which made high-school physics a lot easier and more interesting than it might have been.
I majored in physics as an undergraduate at Cornell, and then got a master's degree in physics from the University of Illinois. I then moved to California to get married to a Caltech graduate student and got a job at JPL to support us. That is how I happened to be working at JPL at the very start of the space age, even before the birth of NASA. I have recently published the story of my career in an autobiographical series in the Journal of Geophysical Research (the December 1, 1997 issue, page 26,887).
A.K. What is your family life like?
M.N. My husband is now a retired Caltech professor who still goes in and does research like I do. We have two grown daughters. One is a reference librarian at the University of Southern California Law School. The other has been a Congressional staffer, now works for the NAACP, is married, and has a 2-year-old child, but unfortunately they live on the other side of the country.
A.K. What are your leisure time activities? Have they changed since you retired?
M.N. Since I retired, my house is in better shape than it has been in decades. I am a homebody. I cook and take care of the house. A couple of times a year I get to spend time with my granddaughter and the rest of my family-which is spread around the country (and Canada). With our daughters, we have tradition of a family Christmas trip together; ten of the last twelve years we have all gone to Hawaii.
I also enjoy water sports, especially snorkeling, and reading nonfiction books.
A.K. What kind of advice would you give to young science students?
M.N. You don't have to be a genius. Just work hard and enjoy it.