Meg Urry is the founding Director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics. In addition to that, she is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academies of Science, the American Physical Society and American Women in Science. Furthermore, Professor Urry is known for her efforts to increase the number of women in the physical sciences, for which she won the 2010 Women in Space Science Award. In this interview, we have touched on a wide range of topics from her love of foreign languages, to her favourite books, spoiler alert – one of them is the Amelia Earhart Biography. It has been an absolute pleasure to interview Meg and we hope you enjoy reading about her journey so far.
Q: What is your dinner party monologue for when someone says “and what do you do?”
A: I study super-massive black holes in the centres of distant galaxies (galaxies being gravitationally bound collections of stars). These black holes grew over the past 13 billion years or so, by accreting gas (atoms and molecules) from the galaxy around them. As that matter falls toward the black hole, it gains kinetic energy (just as when you drop something, it falls with increasing speed). Some of that energy is converted into radiation, so that, paradoxically, the regions just outside the horizon of the black hole are very luminous, especially at the highest energies. That makes them easy to find. Indeed, the light from black hole accretion can outshine the billions up to hundreds of billions of stars in the rest of the galaxy. It turns out that most cosmic objects that emit X-rays are rapidly growing super-massive black holes, so surveying the sky for sources of X-rays is a surefire way to find these objects, which we call “Active Galactic Nuclei” — or, for the most luminous cases, “quasars.” Massive black holes are one of the key ingredients that the Universe around us today. Every large galaxy has a massive black hole in its centre, and its stars were strongly affected by the energy injected into the galaxy because of black hole accretion. So, by studying when and how black holes grew, I am, in a way, studying how the Universe evolved.
Q: Could you tell us about where you grew up; were you a rural or city dweller?
A: I was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and grew up in West Lafayette, Indiana, a small town that is home to Purdue University, where my father was a professor of chemistry. When I was 12, we moved to Winchester, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston (my dad became a professor at Tufts University), where I went to high school and college. Indiana and Massachusetts were pretty different but the biggest cultural jolt in my young life was spending a two summer months Europe when I was 13. (This was a long time ago; the dollar was very strong and Europe was within reach of my ordinary middle-class family.) I just drank it all in. I met maternal relatives in Italy, reconnected with a childhood friend in Germany, and walked everywhere, through one beautiful city after another, testing my language skills and learning some new ones – and feeling the tug of a wider world.
Q: What subject(s) did you excel at in school, and which did you find most challenging?
A: I was a good student. I really liked learning. Frankly, I was good at many subjects as a child, from English to history to math to science to foreign languages to sports to music… I loved it all. I had a great chemistry teacher in high school – Miss Crawley – a stern but lovely person whom I admired greatly. (Much later, her story of how she went to graduate school gave me courage as a woman in a male-dominated field.) Anyway, most things came easily, so it took me a while to realize that you reach a top level only by working very hard. For example, my violin playing never reached a good place b/c I didn’t practice enough (despite lovely violin teachers, who were no doubt quite frustrated with me). I had too many interests to focus on any one of them. Heading off to college, I really had no idea where I might end up.
Q: Can you recall any reoccurring comments from your school reports?
A: Not really. I think they were pretty positive, though it’s always been easier for me to remember the bad stuff. For example, although I usually got top grades, I once got a C+ in handwriting, in 6th grade. (See? I can still remember it. And I had pretty neat handwriting, too.) In high school, I took lots of AP classes and played basketball and badminton and hung out with friends.
Q: Did you ever have a eureka moment where you thought, “this is the subject I want to study”?
A: Yes, I guess so, although maybe there were three. The first hint was during an introductory physics class as a freshman at Tufts. I had done well in the fall semester but wasn’t enamoured of the subject. Then, in the spring term, as we studied electricity and magnetism, I just didn’t get it. Neither the book nor the professor was broadcasting on any wavelength I could receive, and I did very poorly on the first exam. (See, I remember the bad grades. It was a 50%.) Then I had a stern talking to myself. This could NOT be that hard. Thousands of students had mastered physics before me. So I redoubled my efforts and at some point, it all became clear – and I saw the beauty and simplicity and exactness of physics. Second epiphany: my first research experience, as a rising college senior, at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s summer student program. I got paid what seemed like a fortune at the time to look out into the Universe and find AGN (massive, rapidly growing black holes in galaxies). It seemed too good to be true. And besides enjoying the research, I discovered astronomers are friendly and sociable. (As for physicists, that wasn’t my impression at the time.) Third epiphany: Doing my PhD at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, I realized that I was figuring out stuff no one else had ever understood, which was just incredibly exciting.
Regarding your undergraduate studies:
Q: Which University did you study at, and was it your first choice?
A: I went to Tufts University because it was free – no tuition for children of faculty and I could live at home. My parents had four children and a modest single income, so they didn’t see how else to put all of us through. I really wanted to go away from home, to experience new things, to study somewhere my father wasn’t known, but it wasn’t possible.
Q: What undergraduate degree did you study for at University, and in hindsight would you select the same subject again?
A: I majored in physics and mathematics and yes, I would do that again. I was interested in so many other things, and I did take a broad range of classes (literature, classics, Egyptology, art history, …) but after freshman year, the focus was science and I really liked that physics was not fuzzy opinion.
Q: Can you remember a University lecturer who really inspired you?
A: The one who made the biggest impression – I can still remember his lectures – was my art history teacher, Ivan Galantic. He taught a gigantic survey, from prehistoric times through the modern day. Often, the art he most loved was something I had previously pooh-poohed (e.g., Poussin), while things I thought I loved (e.g., Impressionism) he dismissed with barely a mention. I learned to appreciate art I simply hadn’t understood before. To this day, the content of those lectures is what I most remember. Every time I visit an art museum, those lessons come back – and I go to museums in almost every city I visit.
Regarding your postgraduate studies:
Q: What motivated you to further pursue academia?
A: My parents always talked about “when you go to graduate school…” So it was expected. And, following my summer research experience in astronomy, I was fired up to do astrophysics. I also loved teaching, from informal tutoring to discussion sections to leading an entire introductory physics class with lab. So becoming a professor of astrophysics seemed like the ideal job for me.
Q: What institution(s) did you study at in your pursuit of postgraduate education?
A: Johns Hopkins University.
Q: What was the title of your PhD thesis, and how would you explain your findings to a novice?
A: “X-Ray and Ultraviolet Observations of BL Lacertae Objects.” I used space satellites (the International Ultraviolet Explorer and the first two High Energy Astrophysics Observatories), along with other published multi-wavelength data, to investigate the properties of this unusual class of objects. I then showed that they were a rare phenomenon characterized by relativistic jets pointed at the Earth, i.e., special cases of a much larger class of galaxies with randomly oriented jets. The jets are ejected from the region near a massive, central black hole. We still don’t fully understand what causes these jets to be launched, but my thesis demonstrated that (1) relativistic effects (because the emitting plasma is moving down the jet at nearly the speed of light) cause the observed rapid, high amplitude variability of BL Lacs and other blazars (the name for highly variable, highly polarized radio sources, which we now know to be the class of jet-aligned AGN), and (2) the parent objects (i.e., the population with randomly aligned jets) are radio galaxies; I showed that their observed luminosity functions transform naturally into blazar luminosity functions when the effects of relativistic beaming are properly taken into account. So I became an expert on blazars and on how the observed characteristics of an AGN depend on viewing angle.
Q: If you had your time as a student again, what would you do, if anything, differently?
A: I would ask more questions. The easiest way to learn something – and to understand it fully – is to discuss it with an expert. Too often I worried about looking stupid. It didn’t help that I was often the only woman in the room and that my performance would be taken as what all women were like. Anyway, hesitating to ask just helps make you more stupid. Ask questions!
Q: Tell us about your current research focus?
A: I am looking at how growing black holes affect their host galaxies (a possibility that goes by the name “feedback”), starting with an overall description of the growth of massive central black holes over the past 12 billion years. Right now my group is carrying out a major survey, called “Stripe 82X.” The motivation is to complete the census of black hole growth across the cosmos. Earlier surveys, including GOODS (the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey) and COSMOS (Cosmic Origins Survey), which I helped design, told us a great deal about the history of black hole growth, but those surveys were too small to sample rare phenomena like very high luminosity AGN (quasars), or the first AGN (in the first 3 billion years after the Big Bang origin of the Universe). For that, you need to survey a very large volume. We had the idea of grafting an X-ray survey onto a large survey field that was already well studied at other wavelengths, the “Stripe 82” part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. It’s a thin equatorial strip along 1/3 of the full 360-degree circle, and this field has been imaged extensively at optical, infrared, ultraviolet and radio wavelengths. So we are adding the X-ray piece and studying the galaxies and black hole growth at extremes of mass, luminosity and/or epoch.
Q: What do you believe is your single most important piece of research?
A: Sheesh. I like all my children… I am proud of my PhD thesis, and especially the most inventive piece of it, which was showing how relativistic beaming of astrophysical jets affects the observed distribution of jet power. It explained quite simply how the beamed population could occupy only a small fraction of the available solid angle (i.e., those few sources pointing directly at our telescopes) while still being numerous (because beaming greatly enhances their brightness) relative to the parent population. And I showed explicitly that the connection between parent and beamed populations depends on the jet outflow velocity. Which was just as measured directly by VLBI. So everything fit, nice and tidy. This work goes under the rubric, “the unification of radio-loud AGN.” Since then, I showed that BL Lac objects are preferentially found in massive, old, red galaxies; and I designed the GOODS multiwavelength survey and used its optical, infrared and X-ray data to do a thorough census of black hole growth over the past 10 billion years. I guess I’m pretty proud of that work as well.
Q: Within your area of study, what breakthroughs are on the horizon?
A: Breakthroughs come from new observing capabilities. The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope next year will provide a powerful tool for studying the earliest black holes and galaxies – I hope to get some observing time on it.
A huge breakthrough was the recent discovery of gravitational radiation from merging black holes with LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational wave Observatory). This showed that LIGO, which I had expected would see mainly objects in our own galaxy, can actually probe the universe out to cosmological distances (i.e., several billion light years from us). It can help us measure the merger rate at the low mass end. Further into the future, I hope we have a gravitational wave detector (like the European eLISA) that can see mergers of more massive black holes, like those that power AGN. Finally, the planned WFIRST mission (the acronym stands for Wide-Field InfraRed Telescope) will image the entire sky at near-infrared wavelengths, and a possible Explorer mission, Sphere-X, now in Phase A (early) planning, will do near-infrared spectroscopy of millions of galaxies. Those missions – along with the ground-based Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in the optical – make possible a much better survey of the history of black hole growth and galaxy evolution (among many other scientific areas).
Q: Let your imagination take over for a minute and tell us what you hope your successors will be researching in 2116?
A: I’m terrible at prognosticating and more importantly, the most exciting discoveries come from completely unexpected directions. The laser is a critical part of our lives today, in 2017, but no one in 1917 would have had a clue what a laser is or how it would work – the laws of quantum mechanics were still being developed. Dark energy is another example or dark matter. A century ago were arguing about whether we lived in a unique universe of stars or the universe was, in fact, a collection of galaxies, each made up by stars like our Sun. Now we know that the visible universe is a paltry few percent of the story; most of the mass-energy is in a mysterious substance or force (called dark energy) that we don’t understand, and most of the rest is due to mysterious particles (dark matter) that don’t behave like the protons and electrons we know. So, more power to the scientists of 2116. Hmm, let me make one prediction about the future: by 2116, we will have overcome the foolish present notion that white American men automatically make the best scientists, students around the world will receive excellent educations regardless of location or standard of living, and the pace of discovery will accelerate enormously because of all the brainpower that global education produces –thus solving, one after the next, the major challenges for life on Earth. I hope.
Q: What do you feel your professional legacy will be?
A: My legacy is surely my students – those who have done research with me, whether undergraduate students, graduate students or postdocs. I take some small pride in watching them flourish, in seeing their contributions to the sum of knowledge of mankind. Not because I made them who they are but because I hope I influenced them in some small way, to be engaged, thoughtful, fair — and able to pronounce soft and hard “g” and “c” consonants properly in Italian (Giovanni, Brunelleschi, pistachio, Celeste Aida, certo, Gianni Schicchi, etc.).
Q: Are you working on any extra-curricular projects at the moment, such as: books, podcasts, websites, or speaking?
A: I give a lot of talks about the dearth of women and other under-represented groups in science, especially to colleagues in other universities and laboratories. It’s about making sure we don’t waste the talent that is out there. I write occasional articles for CNN about newsworthy scientific discoveries. I like to make physics and astronomy discoveries accessible to everyone. I am part of the Global Teaching Project, an effort to bring college-level instruction to students in under-resourced high schools. We are aiming at bright kids who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to the kind of teaching available in our nation’s top high schools. My introductory physics class – sort of an AP Physics I level course, and the first GTP product – is being rolled out in Mississippi this fall, for students in six rural school districts, with extensive support local teachers and remote tutors in several first-rate universities. Our nation and our world face huge challenges in the coming century, many of which will have to be addressed by scientists. So we can’t afford not to teach students effectively.
Advice and Tips
Q: If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Ask more questions. Be less shy. Don’t assume everyone else knows more than they do.
Q: What advice would you give someone looking to start, or progress his or her career in your field?
A: Work hard, do something interesting, make your work count, and help others, especially those coming up behind you.
Q: Which book would you say has had the biggest impact on your life?
A: A biography of Amelia Earhart that I read as a kid (over and over again), and the Nancy Drew Series (all 52, most of them in the original text rather than the modernized version). Plus a lot of orange-bound biographies of American leaders like George Washington and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (Betsy Ross was the only woman among the several dozen biographies I read. I remember being vaguely dissatisfied that sewing a flag was the only female contribution to the nation’s founding. Now I am much more aware of the oddly skewed white male perspective in the US History I learned or was taught.) As for science, my interest didn’t come from books. The only thing that got me to like science was doing it. To this day, I don’t read many science-related books.
Our thoughts are the one thing we add to the equation. So what we think, and how we contribute those thoughts, is important.
Q: Why do you think being a freethinker is important?
A: Our thoughts are the one thing we add to the equation. So what we think, and how we contribute those thoughts, is important.
Q: And finally, we are back at the dinner party. Someone offers you a drink, what do you ask for?
A: Sparkling water with lime (my usual on aeroplanes) or given that this is a party, maybe a Mojito (light on the rum). I’m easy.
If you’d like to find out more about Professor Meg Urry you can check out her Twitter page, Wikipedia page and academic profile.
Feature photo © Elle Starkman/PPPL Office of Communications (2017).
Books Recommended by Professor Meg Urry