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Catching Stars in a Bucket

Astronomer Sidney Wolff is part time-traveler as she peers at the universe that was. INTERVIEW

AS Director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatories, Sidney C. Wolff is the first woman to head a major American observatory. With a $25 million budget and a staff of 460, she oversees observatories on nearby Kitt Peak and in New Mexico and Chile. Yet she still devotes about 20 percent of her time to research on star formation, spending 8 to 10 nights a year observing, and she writes introductory astronomy textbooks. So she must have been one of those whiz-kid mathematicians, right?

Not so, she chuckles.

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``I wouldn't be a scientist now,'' she says candidly, ``if my father hadn't made me take mathematics.''

She liked math, she says, yet it never came as easily as other things. But her father, a businessman in Missouri and Illinois, ``felt somewhat limited because he hadn't gone very far with mathematics. So he made me take all the math courses all the way through high school. He used to pay me for grades. I got 50 cents for As; he took a quarter back for Bs. But I didn't get anything unless I got an A in mathematics.

``I really think it was his forcing me to take that particular path that made me stick with math long enough to have science as an option.''

Initially, she says, science was just that - an option. She had been interested in astronomy ever since a third-grade spelling lesson had the words ``planet'' and ``telescope'' in it. She began reading about astronomy, and she spent one summer ``fooling around'' with a reflecting telescope loaned to her by an uncle who was a high-school teacher.

But Latin, she recalls, was her real strength in high school. After winning the state Latin contest in Illinois, she was offered a full scholarship to the University of Chicago to study Latin, but went instead to Carleton College, which offered an astronomy major. ``The second year I was there, Latin and astronomy met at the same time and I had to choose. I chose astronomy. But it was a close call.''

What has that experience taught her?

``I think that the key thing, especially if you're talking to the high-school students, is to stick with mathematics. Once you stop, then you really can't go on in science. So just keep your options open.''

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Another point, reinforced by some teaching she did during the 17 years she and her physicist husband spent in Hawaii at the Institute for Astronomy on 14,000-foot-high Mauna Kea, is the lack of what she calls ``a common vocabulary or a common culture.''

``When I was teaching astronomy,'' she explains. ``I would say that Newton was working at the time that certain other things were going on. But these kids really didn't know about Beethoven or Shakespeare, or the history of Western Europe.''

The problem, she feels, arises from ``trendy courses'' in high school that replace the basic areas of study. ``When I was going to high school, we studied English, American history, mathematics, and a science course,'' she says. ``It was very limited. But at least we had a common vocabulary.''

That grounding in a ``common vocabulary,'' she feels, has made her a better administrator - a job that requires scientists who, in addition to their research skills, can ``write well, present things clearly, and understand and motivate people.'' Since one of the most pressing problems in astronomy is a lack of telescope time - the largest telescope at Kitt Peak is ``oversubscribed by a factor of four to one,'' she says - Dr. Wolff spends considerable time reading applications from scientists applying for time. That requires her to keep abreast of her entire field. Yet science is ``sufficiently difficult that to have a deep understanding of more than one field is very difficult at this point.''

She sees two things emerging, however, that will change her field significantly. The first is simply a matter of demographics. Astronomers who began working in the 1960s - when there was a ``spurt of growth'' in the field - will be retiring in the 1990s, opening up new positions in a field known for its scarcity of jobs.

Second, she looks forward to ``the launch of all kinds of space observatories in the next decade that will absolutely revolutionize the field.'' Already, she says, NASA is ``very concerned about whether there will be adequate numbers of people effectively to use all these facilities.''

Also developing rapidly are new technologies for building larger ground-based telescopes using lighter and more flexible mirrors. ``All a telescope is, is a `light bucket,''' she explains, ``so the bigger the telescope, the fainter and more distant the object you can see.''

Why is that particularly interesting? Because, she says, ``we will see objects with the telescopes we're talking about that are so far away that it will have taken light 10 billion years or longer to get from there to here. So we'll be seeing them the way they were 10 billion years ago. But the universe is only somewhere between 10 or 15 billion years old. So, in a way, we'll have a time machine, so that we can travel back into the past and see the way things really got started.''

And that, she says, accounts for the usefulness of astronomy to the public at large. ``Astronomers sometimes go through this story about the number of spinoffs that have come from astronomy - the X-ray machines, the airports, and so forth. All that's true.''

But the real reason for studying astronomy, she says, is that ``the questions astronomers are asking are the same questions people have asked throughout history: Where do we come from, and where are we going? I think that astronomy really helps to position us in the universe - I think it gives us a perspective on life.''

In addition, she says, space offers some practical solutions for humanity. ``There certainly are asteroids that are so rich in metals that, if you went out and fetched one and brought it to Earth orbit, you could mine it and solve our mineralogical problems for a couple of hundred years.''

There is also, she says, at least a possibility of extraterrestrial life. Yet if such life is intelligent and ``at all curious,'' it should have ``propagated'' itself through the universe and arrived here by now. ``Why aren't they here, if they're there?'' she asks.

She admits that humans have not yet propagated that way. ``But we've only had the capability for about 100 years,'' she says. Besides, she notes, extraterrestrial life ``is only interesting if it's more intelligent and more advanced'' than we are. ``I mean, if there are frogs somewhere else, I don't really care.''

All of which, she says, adds up to a field that ``really is fun.'' The most exciting moment, she says, comes ``when you have been working on a problem and you finally get all the data measured and you work out an interpretation - and you know something that nobody else in the world has ever known. To think that you are the only person in the world that knows this, that you finally had an insight and you finally understand something in a new way - it's just a wonderful moment!'' 'INSIDE THE SCIENCES'

Nov. 6 Botanist Peter Raven Nov. 13 Biologist Lee Hood Nov. 20 Physicist Shirley Jackson Nov. 27 Archaeologist Robert Adams Dec. 4 Astronomer Sidney Wolff Dec. 11 Chemist Mark Wrighton Dec. 18 Particle physicist Leon Lederman Dec. 22 (Fri.) Space scientist James Van Allen Dec. 29 (Fri.) Conclusion