View Roger Wiens' Resume
The following interview occurred March 1, 1999, between
Technical Staff Member in the Space and Atmospheric Science
Division Roger Wiens, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL),
and Senior Associate Alice Krueger, Mid-continent Regional
A. K. Your work for the Genesis mission at LANL is
as co-investigator and project lead. What do those two job
R.W. Co-investigator means that I am one of the scientists
who will be involved in the measurements and publication of
the results when we get the samples back. Also we are advising
on issues affecting the science prior to launch. As project
lead at LANL I am in charge of all activities here including
building three instruments for the payload. I make sure they
are going to do what they are designed to do, and make sure
they won't fail anywhere in flight.
A.K. What new science understanding will the Genesis
mission provide? Why is this important?
R.W. The solar system was created four and a half
billion years ago from a cloud of gas and dust. We know the
dates of this from asteroids, pieces of which we have in the
form of meteorites, and from moon rocks and our own Earth.
We don't know the details of how the solar system was formed.
Genesis is one of the few [NASA] missions that addresses that
issue, only the other ones are astrophysics missions. The
most familiar one is the Hubble Telescope. It shows us other
star systems in the process of formation. To be specific,
the sun contains more than 99% of the solar system material.
Genesis should tell us something about the average composition
of our solar system so we can compare the solar system composition
with individual planets.
A.K. You are a physicist and many of the other scientists
on this mission are chemists. How would you compare what is
and is not known about the sun and solar wind in terms of
physics and chemistry?
R.W. A fair amount is known of the physics of solar
wind. We know its velocity, the charge state of ions in the
solar wind, something about the acceleration processes near
the sun, and about its interaction with magnetic fields like
the Earth's. We know some about the chemical composition.
It is about 92% hydrogen. Most of the rest is helium. Only
a small part is elements we're familiar with from Earth-oxygen,
nitrogen, carbon. We don't know much at all about the isotopic
composition of solar wind. For chemists and geochemists, isotopic
ratios are quite important.
A.K. You have a strong physics background, but you
describe yourself as a geochemist. What is the difference
between geochemistry and geophysics?
R.W. A geophysicist typically deals with seismology
and stuff like that. Geochemistry is more what I do, study
the chemistry of rocks and materials. Although I have a degree
in physics, geochemistry is more fitting for what I do. I
got my Ph.D. from a physics department doing geochemistry.
I also studied (have a minor in) geology. I was using mass
spectrometers that were developed for meteorites and moon
rocks that were developed by physicists in that department.
A.K. You have been a visiting scientist at two US institutions
and at a University in Switzerland. What is a visiting scientist?
How did you become one?
R.W. While I was on staff at Caltech, I was interested
in using techniques that were available elsewhere. I took
samples to Argonne National Laboratory and worked there for
a number of two to three week periods. They had the facilities
and equipment. It was a similar thing with Switzerland. They
had the facilities to test a prototype solar wind concentrator.
We built it at Caltech, then tested it in Switzerland, then
analyzed the data back at Caltech. We got several gigabytes
of results, which were transferred over the Atlantic by Internet.
I also worked at Johnson Space Center during my graduate school
days. At Argonne, being a visiting scientist was an official
title, the main advantage of which was to avoid having to
go through the health and safety requirements again every
nine months or so when I went out there. At the other places,
this was an unofficial title. These types of collaborations
can be very useful because one gets to know in detail a different
experimental technique, and one also gets to know quite well
the different scientists at the respective institutions. However,
working away from home can be more expensive, and can keep
you away from your family and friends.
A.K. You are co-investigator for three other projects
in addition to your Genesis work. How do you do that work
and the Genesis work? What else do you do at LANL and elsewhere?
R.W. Almost all of my work now is on Genesis. There
are several other projects I am involved in that have interesting
instruments. One of them will hopefully be on a future Mars
mission. It can determine the composition of a rock from some
distance away. It uses a really small laser the size of your
index finger that can actually run on a nine volt transistor
battery. It emits a very short light pulse, which hits the
rock. That gives a little POW and a spark of light on the
rock. Instruments back on the other side of the room analyze
the composition of the rock [by analyzing the light given
off]. The laser analysis tool can cover a bigger area than
the Pathfinder Rover covered. It just needs to sit there on
the lander, though it could also help a rover reach inaccessible
areas. These other projects are in the development stage,
where Genesis was five years ago. We are always looking for
new things to do. I am also involved in data analysis from
DS-1. [NASA's first deep space validation flight in the New
Millennium Program, is an asteroid/comet flyby mission which
was launched in 1998.]
A.K. What is your everyday work life like?
R.W. Overall I spend about 40 hours per week on Genesis.
Another 10 hours are spread between other things. For instance,
this morning I biked in and got here about 7:30. Then I checked
my email messages, then checked on a computer simulation I
had run over the weekend. Typically I have some appointments.
In a typical day I'll spend an hour on the phone with other
project members. Often it is a conference call. I check with
the instrument leads [Bruce Barraclough and Beth Nordholt,
in charge of the monitors and concentrator, respectively]
on specific details regarding the instruments. Then I run
around and see how the technicians are doing. There are several
design engineers who put our design ideas on paper, and mechanical
technicians who assemble the instruments and test apparatus.
These people have very important jobs. Perhaps I'll do some
computer simulation runs or take some data to calibrate or
test an instrument.
A.K. Are there any barriers to your work at the present
R.W. Politics and administrative oversight are significant
barriers. No one likes what they may consider excessive oversight
on their projects. But of course, oversight is necessary.
The politics involved in getting on a project is the most
challenging aspect of all. One would like to think that the
best and most economical instruments get chosen for space
missions, but that's not the real world. There's a lot of
A.K. What kind of education and career path led you
to become a scientist?
R.W. I have always been interested in science. My
brother and I grew up building and launching model rockets.
We built a telescope and did some astronomy. I went to college
and majored in science, but I didn't know where I would end
up. There are other important things in life. I thought I
might be an engineer but physics was the most challenging,
so I stayed with it. I was wowed by a potential thesis advisor
who would let me analyze meteorites. He warned me that there
were not terribly many jobs. At that time I thought I would
go into teaching. By Providence, I never got to teach. I did
postdoctoral research after graduate school. I studied rocks
from the bottom of the ocean and hot spots like Hawaii. I
wanted to find out what the Earth's mantle was like. The last
nine years I have spent working on what became the Genesis
mission with Don Burnett.
A.K. What is postdoctoral research? Why is doing postdoctoral
research important to a scientist's career?
R.W. It is typically a short-term position, lasting
about two years. It is done right after getting your Ph.D.
Typically in the old days you became a professor right after
graduation. These days the job market often doesn't support
that. You work a few places, not in the same place all your
life. Different people have different outlooks, they study
different aspects of things. If you are studying meteorites,
you may start with studying their chemical composition, then
do a postdoc stint studying their mineralogical composition.
That's a rather simplistic example. For my Ph.D. thesis I
studied noble gases-helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon-in
Martian meteorites. Then I wanted to study these elements
in the interior of the Earth. It is slightly related, but
not totally related. If you understand the noble gas composition
of Martian meteorites, you can understand something of how
the interior of Mars has been processed. You can study noble
gases coming from rocks in mid-ocean ridges or volcanic hot
spots like Hawaii to see what it's like inside the Earth and
how it has changed over time. For argon, radioactive daughter
products are added to crustal material but not those in the
mantle. By comparing, you can find out two things: the original
composition of noble gases in the Earth and how it changed,
and what processes changed. There are many other interesting
A.K. What is your family life like? What are your leisure
R.W. I am married and have two preschool boys. I try
to spend as much time with them as I can. Both of them are
daddy's boys. At home, wherever I am, the two boys are around
me too. There is always competition between work and family.
We like to hike and swim. I am involved in our church. I find
time to be alone with my wife too. I have to budget it in.
A.K. What kind of advice would you give to young science
R.W. It is important to find the right people to study
under. Keep trying to do what you want to do. Keep asking
questions- especially the big questions. How did we get here?
Why are we here?
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