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Prof. Bruce Balick

University of Washington

Biography

I’m one of these people who can recall wanting to be an astronomer nearly continuously since my father read me an astronomy book when I was five. From there it was a straight slog uphill with no major deviations or doubts. I took two years of physics and calculus in high school, majored in physics and math in college, and went straight to grad school. I graduated from Cornell in 1971 with my Ph.D. (radio studies of star-forming regions) and then went on to successive postdocs at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and Lick Observatory. I’ve worked on star formation, active galactic nuclei, neutral hydrogen in early-type galaxies, and, for the past 15 years, studies of nebular hydrodynamics with application to planetary nebulae. See my home page for more details.

My present faculty position at the University of Washington started in 1975. Since then I’ve taken professional leaves at NRAO (to work on the VLA, then under construction), Berkeley, Sterrewacht Leiden (Netherlands), and Osservatorio Arcetri above Florence (Italy). Presently I serve on the Hubble Space Telescope User’s Committee and the Scientific Overview Committee for the Hubble Space Telescope’s last imaging camera, WFC3, to be installed in Hubble in 2003.

I am extremely fortunate to have enjoyed wonderful long-term collaborations with Yervant Terzian, Vincent Icke, Adam Frank, Garrelt Mellema, Mario Perinotto, Arsen Hajian, and many other wonderful people who all contribute to making my professional career such an exciting, satisfying experience. I thank them all. My devotion to a professional career is possible only because of the perseverance and understanding of my wife, Della; children, Charlene and Marshall; various pets, our many wonderful neighbors, and the flowers and fauna of the Pacific Northwest.

Doing astronomy is amazing and almost always fun. Elements of both art and science are essential. The art is the creative process of developing hunches from subtle patterns that emerge in data. The science is developing these hunches into physically realistic models, and then evaluating the models against new observations. Yet, whenever I have trouble reaching from the art to the science (which is often), Mark Twain’s quip of a century ago comes to mind:

In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. This is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolithic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science: one gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
— from Life on the Mississippi, Samuel Clemens

Now that the kids are grown Della and I travel much more. We’ve found a chance to explore heaven together in Tuscany, to find grace and harmony in Andalucia, and to sample some sinless pleasure in Provence. Leiden is our home away from home, and we return there whenever possible to see our many friends.