• by Sarah Teach •
Island nonprofit science education and research organization, the Maria Mitchell Association (MMA), has welcomed in Dr. Michael West as their new Director of Astronomy. After a 16-year tenure at the helm of MMA’s astronomy program, Dr. Vladimir Strelnitski retired, leaving astronomical shoes to fill. But after meeting his successor, we anticipate that Dr. West will not only fill those shoes but also teach them to moonwalk.
West offers a warm greeting at his office door, excited to have a visitor at the Vestal Street Observatory. Thus, it comes as no surprise that his hospitable demeanor extends to welcoming people to astronomy. “I want to find nontraditional ways to bring astronomy to the people of Nantucket,” he says. West envisions the likes of wine tastings under the night sky at the observatory and live music under the stars. With a complete commitment to comprehensive community outreach and a mind already simmering with a medley of ideas, West is starting off with a big bang.
West earned his PhD in astronomy from Yale University in 1987 and has since planted a handful of residential thumbtacks across the globe. His most recent stint was in Chile, where he spent six years as Head of Science for the European Southern Observatory, where the creation of the world’s largest telescope is underway. West, who began at MMA on March 1, 2013, admits, “I wasn’t looking for a job when I heard about this opening. But I saw it and thought, oh wow, that’s my dream job to be able to be constantly focused on public outreach! I saw a chance to bring in my creative side and try to find ways to bridge the sciences and arts.” West expresses awe over the vitality of Nantucket’s arts community. “I have met some incredibly interesting people here already,” he says. “Nantucket has a very eclectic group of people.” But West is no stranger to island life. Before his work in Chile, he was Head of Science Operations at Gemini Observatory on Hilo, Hawaii’s “big island,” where he also served as a Professor of Astronomy at the University of Hawaii. “I also lived in Nova Scotia,” West begins, and then quickly adds, “Which is almost an island!” A wide smile spreads across his face and he leans in a little. “I think it takes a special kind of a person to enjoy living on an island.”
Like everything else about Nantucket, there are pros and cons to stargazing on the island. “There are very dark skies out here, [so there’s] not a lot of light pollution,” West cites. “And on the other hand, there’s something astronomers call seeing, which refers to stars’ twinkling. Here on an island near sea level, there’s a lot of atmosphere in between the stars and us. The stars look a little puffy and we don’t see as sharp an image. But,” with a sly grin, West continues, “the great thing is that I can use a telescope to get that good image.” And West expresses gratitude to be practicing astronomy on the home turf of renowned astronomer Maria Mitchell–at her namesake organization, no less. “Every kid across America should know about Maria Mitchell. I mean, she was the first female astronomer in this country! She should be in textbooks, just like Amelia Earhart!” exclaims West. “It’s my hope to see that happen.”
When Maria Mitchell discovered a comet in 1847, she was awarded a medal with the inscription: “Not in vain do we watch the setting and rising of the stars.” Like Mitchell herself, West feels there is a connection between beings on earth and those celestial. “I always look at astronomy like art, music, literature. These are all things that make us human,” West explains. “Astronomy can help us figure out who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going. Of course, science isn’t the only way to answer those questions. But it’s certainly a powerful way. When you realize that every one of the atoms in your body was once cooked inside a star, and when you can see how small we really are in the scope of everything, that puts some perspective on our little daily issues.”
However, West believes that some breeds of stargazers are, in fact, starry-eyed. “Ah, astrology. The evil cousin!” jokes West. “Originally, astronomy and astrology were indistinguishable. But I don’t see any scientific justification that validates astrology. The moment you are born, the doctor delivering you,” (he gives an imaginary baby a little tug) “has more of a gravitational pull on you than the stars in the sky. But at the same time,” West muses thoughtfully, drawing one hand to his chin, “I never wanted to be one of those scientists that just stands up on a box and says, ‘No, no, no.’” West frowns deeply, wagging his index finger in the air for a moment before his face relaxes back into its familiar cheerful smile. “’Cause who knows, right?”
It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that West loves to share astronomy with others. Just two summers from now, MMA will cut the ribbon to a newly constructed science center. West predicts tremendous opportunities will be brought to Nantucket through the facility, which will be situated on MMA’s harbor side property on Washington Street. With an anticipated opening date of 2015, West and the rest of the astronomy staff have several years to prepare a full feast of programming designed to garner interest in astronomy. “We have to make it relevant to people,” West says, giving the air a little chop with his open palm. At the same time, he acknowledges that many visitors stick to the downtown area and may not get to explore the observatories. West’s response to this is something he dubs “guerilla astronomy;” that is, setting up a telescope right on Main Street and offering its view to passersby. “If people won’t come to astronomy, then astronomy will come to them!” he exclaims, clearly thrilled at the prospect. “I’m super excited about the planetarium [that will be built within the new science center],” West reveals. “A lot of people are very visual learners, so it will be a great way to reach them. Plus, you can think of it as a domed theater!” He sighs and softly says, “One of my dreams is to have a string quartet play under the stars at the planetarium.”
Fittingly, West currently chairs the International Astronomical Union’s working group on New Ways of Communicating Astronomy with the Public. He lists several reasons for being so passionate about bringing astronomy to the public: “First, I think that we as astronomers owe it to the people whose donations and tax dollars pay for our telescopes. We have a responsibility to show our communities what we are doing with their money. But my real reason for wanting to bring astronomy to the public is because I love it. If one kid decides to become an astronomer, then it’s worth it. That whole thing, if you can inspire someone to learn.” He gestures a rolling effect with both hands. “I’m amazed that I get a paycheck to do this.” West offers an open invitation to all community members and island visitors: “Come visit the observatory!” We speculate that West will advance Maria Mitchell’s astronomy program out of this world.
MMA’s Vestal Street Observatory at 3 Vestal Street is open to visitors for tours at 2 pm daily Mondays through Saturdays starting June 10.
MMA’s Loines Observatory at 59 Milk Street hosts several stargazing nights each week during the summer months. To see what’s happening this week, check our calendar of events.