This interview—presented in extracted form—is from the High Flying issue of Museum. You can read the full story in the print edition.
A special report on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day archive—an image-driven attempt to catalogue (some) of the universe’s ephemera.
Existence is a loaded thing. Those of us who do not engage with the physical environment or, spiritually speaking, ritualistic practice, might wonder only briefly and in passing about that which we do not understand—the deep sea, impending apocalypse, where we come from—before shaking our heads and continuing onward. Laden with the subtle nuances of the day-to-day, life, like water, brims below the surface with unanswerable enigmas and conundrums, meta-compounded by the fact that we are living it. Perhaps the mystery of the cosmos is the most confounding of these puzzles: it is simultaneously the closest (swooping over us, our constant, velvety black canopy), the biggest (its depth is mostly unknown), the scariest (what is out there?), and finally the most comforting (then again, what is out there? Is it our history, our origins, other life forms to prove we’re not alone?). It’s unfair that the archetype of the reclusive bookworm has ever been associated with those who dedicate their lives to studying the nature of the universe, because they project themselves, at least mentally, further than most of us will ever tread: into space and time.
Robert J Nemiroff, a professor of physics at Michigan Technological University, in 1995 co-developed, and has since co-written and edited, NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD), alongside Jerry Bonnell—helping the rest of us contend with the outer reaches of space by simply scrolling. The site has not changed its layout since its earliest days; on a pale-lavender background (#f4f4ff), surrounded by Times New Roman text, utilising HTML coding a child can plug, images of space and the tools of space study are showcased. Today: NGC 6240, an ultra-luminous galaxy in the Ophiuchus constellation, bursting shades of strange, fiery red in a milky blue petal. Yesterday: a sturdy, seemingly star-speckled cliff atop Comet 67P. Click through the archives, filed since June 1995, and you’ll find yourself in the best kind of Internet K-hole, examining hunks of spaceships and waterfalls of orange-veined supernova remnants. While the image’s titles are straightforward (Red Aurora Over Australia), most of them read like unpunctuated poetry or one-off essential oil blends: Two Worlds One Sun, Blue Tears and the Milky Way, When Vega is North, Caroline’s Rose, A Message from Earth.
Like many sites from the early days of the internet—when we all had noble hopes regarding its potential—APOD is educational, in the most honest sense of the term. It is strictly for gazing and wondering, and like the best scholastic tutorials, almost universally appealing, despite—or perhaps because of—its old-school layout. Translated into 21 languages daily, APOD is hugely popular, having received, on estimate, over 1 billion image views, a figure that dates back to 2012. Search for its Instagram component and you’ll likely stumble upon numerous knockoffs. Only the real APOD uploads a NASA-approved image of the universe each day, with, as the site explains, “a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.” Those explanations are solidly pedagogical, and informative enough to prompt further inspection for the curious reader, but let’s be real: APOD is also a pleasing distraction. We’ve (hopefully) progressed in some sense since 1995, and while its intention of knowledge-sharing still holds true, you might find yourself clicking through APOD as a palate-cleanser after sorting through the dregs of the Internet: listicles, cat photos, and fortunately accessible but invariably terrible news.
The site goes on to state that, “in real life, Bob and Jerry … are two married, mild and lazy guys who might appear relatively normal to an unsuspecting guest. Together, they have found new and unusual ways of annoying people such as staging astronomical debates.” That self-effacing humour puts APOD in a new context: space is venerable, but it’s also odd, and laughing at the study of its significance might be necessary in the face of Bonnell’s and Nemiroff’s accomplishments. How else can civilians relate?
Nemiroff, who worked at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, earned a research reward in 2012 for both his study and earnest willingness to share it with others. He predicted that gamma-ray bursts (the universe’s most powerful explosions) originate well beyond the Milky Way, which provides a clue to the age of our universe. Nemiroff is also co-creator of the Astrophysics Source Code Library, and he led the first group to establish a global network of cameras that record the night sky in its entirety.
Curious about all of this, and inspired by our genuine love for APOD, we spoke to Nemiroff through a long and engaging email correspondence. As it turns out, he was quick to undercut his own accomplishments with humble humor. APOD is probably the best website on the Internet, and space, like life, is partially measurable.
MONICA USZEROWICZ As someone exploring the beginnings of the universe, what prompted your interest in the cosmos?
ROBERT NEMIROFF Like many scientists, in particular astronomers, I wanted to be a scientist from a very early age. I remember in second grade that I could say the names of the planets—then including Pluto—faster than anyone in the class. And that included—and I hope you are sitting down for this—the teacher. So obviously, I was pre-qualified to become an astronomer.
USZEROWICZ I also remember our class was given a presentation by a guest about careers in seventh grade, after which we were encouraged to ask about possible career opportunities. I worked up the courage and asked about a career in astronomy. The answer surprised me—that this was unrealistic and that nobody really ever becomes an astronomer. Perhaps, he suggested, my interests would better take me into engineering or another type of science.
NEMIROFF My parents thought this as well. I agreed to major in engineering physics as opposed to regular physics, in part to appease them. I think I finally broke them when it became clear I was going to apply to graduate schools in astronomy and astrophysics, and not apply for jobs as a physicist engineer. I remember my mother asking me, somewhat exasperated, if I was really going to go through with this. “You were warned,” was my answer. Even so, they did support me. And I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to do this as a career.
I am now in my mid-50s and I have never had a golden spoon through this. I barely squeaked through almost every step of the way. I do not excel in intelligence—my IQ is in the 120s. I do not excel in math or verbal abilities. My combined SATs were in the 1100s, a bit above average. I got into Lehigh undergraduate off the waiting list. I got into Penn graduate because I had worked a previous summer with some professors there. I do not fit the popular model of the ‘lone genius’ astrophysicist. I consider myself a regular person with a wife, kid, and a mortgage. In my opinion, I am somewhat creative—for a scientist!—but perhaps my limited successes can best be chalked up to perseverance. I like to think about space. I don’t think quickly. I don’t think efficiently. I think repeatedly. And I’ve been doing it since I was 6. I’ve lost the ‘off’ button.
My father was a journalist. Although eventually supportive of my science efforts, he would point out on occasion that the writing one finds in science journals isn’t writing—not really. He never dismissed APOD specifically, but seemed to think that I was a fish out of water there. In general, during APOD’s first few years, he did not want to discuss it. After about 10 years of APOD—and the first book—I pressed the issue and asked him for writing advice, which he gave and which I use to this day. I do realise that I am not a very good science writer, and that my part in the continued success of APOD is mainly due to its simple modular structure and the enthusiasm that is conveyed, rather than the prose. Also, given nearly 50 years of experience, I have developed some intuition as to which space stories and images are likely to be of continued importance, and which ones are not.
USZEROWICZ Can you tell me about what you did for NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center? Did you hone in on your primary research subjects there?
NEMIROFF I met my co-writer for APOD, Jerry Bonnell, at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). Initially, I was the second person in a soon-to-be three-person group coming together at GSFC, primarily to study gamma-ray bursts. In 1993 I had moved over from a postdoc at the Naval Research Lab (NRL) in a gamble—I was going to attempt to switch sub-fields for the first time in my career. I had been working in a subfield called gravitational lensing, which studies the deflection of light by matter, but now there was a new satellite, Compton, that was getting the best data ever on an unusual type of explosion known as gamma-ray bursts. I had even given up an offer of a permanent job at NRL for only a temporary job at GSFC just to study [them]. If I was not able to make the transition, or if Compton failed, I would likely have made myself practically unemployable in an already very competitive job market. Worse yet, NASA was saturated with ‘soft-money’ researchers like me—because although there was a lot of science to be done, they could only afford to give permanent jobs to a few. But GRBs just seemed so interesting. So I gambled.
Later that year, in 1994, Jerry tried to convince me that this new ‘world wide web’ thing was going to be very important. I was not impressed.
Jerry joined the group after me and we shared an office. At first, I was skeptical of him, also, I initially suspected that he was really more interested in aeroplanes than astrophysics. Happily, my worries turned out to be unfounded. Jerry [was] not only extremely modest but extremely capable. And fun. He would quietly and routinely crank out excellent code and scientific analyses. We grew to be friends—but sort of competitive friends at first. As time progressed, one of our office dynamics was that I would say something outrageous and Jerry would respectfully imply that I did not know what I was talking about. This would lead to polite but pointed disagreements that we would end up trying to resolve together.
One day while working at our respective desks, I mentioned that I knew of a perfect random number generator. Jerry took immediate exception to this and said that he’d studied random number generators, and was sure that any method I’d thought of would not produce truly random numbers. I replied that I thought the digits of pi were effectively random to anyone who did not know they were the digits of pi. Therefore, all one has to do is compute these digits and—there you go.
It turned out too difficult to compute lots of digits of pi—we couldn’t get an algorithm to generate digits very quickly. We decided to compute digits of Euler’s number e, and then the square roots of integers, instead. Because we shared computers and disk space with neighboring research groups, people began complaining that there were these really large files being generated by our group. When a high-level IT person came around to complain, I confessed that the files had nothing to do with GRBs but instead we were checking the randomness of irrational numbers. And come to think of it, we were on the verge of setting a world record for the number of digits computed. To my surprise, the person said, effectively, “Oh, cool!” and even tweaked the computer hardware to make the calculations go faster.
Although no randomness was found, we agreed to write up a manuscript with our results and submitted it to a computer journal. It was rejected—too strange, I guess. But it turned out that we did set the record for digits of e. Wikipedia [acknowledges] our record. Although we didn’t know it at the time, the previous record holder turned out to be Steve Wozniak, using an Apple II computer.
Later that year, in 1994, Jerry tried to convince me that this new ‘world wide web’ thing was going to be very important. I was not impressed. Soon, though, he convinced me. In 1995, going back to our outrageous suggestion paradigm, I suggested to Jerry that we could make a lot of money from this ‘WWW,’ perhaps even enough money to buy a Hawaiian island. Jerry had visited Hawaii recently, so I was hoping this would entice him. The problem was that I didn’t really know how to make money off the WWW. So we thought up ideas.
One idea was to answer astronomy questions, but that seemed too hard. Another was to declare web sites, like records, ‘silver,’ ‘gold,’ or ‘platinum,’ based on their popularity, but we soon realised that we had no reliable way of assessing this. A third way was to just provide brief annotations to some of the astronomy pictures that were being commonly appended to emails those days—just a short paragraph so that people might actually know a bit about what’s pictured. If we were successful, the best of these email-attached astronomy images would actually now come with an explanation, possibly making this small branch of the WWW almost educational. Given our astronomy backgrounds, that seemed doable.
We went back to our usual GRB research. A few lunches later, however, this explaining-astronomy-pictures idea still seemed like a good one. We discussed obvious ways that it could fail: copyright issues, workload issues, bandwidth issues and limitations on available images. We satisfied ourselves that there was nothing obviously wrong with this idea. In fact, it seemed straightforward and self-contained enough for us to keep our day jobs for a while. So we gave it a try. And then stopped. And then another try. And, to our surprise, we haven’t stopped since. [This June marked] 20 consecutive years, making us one of the longest-running … blogs? Something else? … on the web. One humorous note, though: we’ve stopped pricing Hawaiian Islands because APOD has never made a lot of money.
USZEROWICZ Your friendship with Jerry is the stuff of superheroes! Or at least Pinky and the Brain, right? What a wonderful story. APOD seems to have retained a lot of its origins, especially aesthetically speaking. I think it’s comforting to look at, a testament to its history.
NEMIROFF I think we consider APOD’s design a bit like the Volkswagen Beetle. It is simple, serves its purpose, and people now expect it to look the way it does. A few times a year someone will email us and volunteer to update the APOD design for free. So far, though, we decline because we see no reason to. APOD’s design may remind some people of the web in the mid-1990s, but it still seems to function OK to us. The longevity of the design has now become a badge of honor. Perhaps there’s a bit of defiance in there, too.
USZEROWICZ How do you go about finding and selecting the images?
NEMIROFF Many images are submitted to us by email. Somehow, someway, this universe has temporarily configured itself so that whenever anyone anywhere on the planet takes a really cool astronomy image, they email it to us! And sometimes even robots off the planet. Perhaps that is an over-generalisation. We do still find some of our images in press releases or posted somewhere on the web.
USZEROWICZ Was the original plan just to make money—or did you realise that you really wanted to share with others?
NEMIROFF A lot of the [thinking] behind APOD was centered on fighting the seeming probability that the developing web would mature into a stupid web, a place where knowledge was just not important. By annotating astronomy images, we tried to do our part to help make our part of the web a smart web, where images were tied to real explanations of what was going on. Perhaps we’re making a difference—I’d like to think so, but I am really not sure.
An article in Museum Issue 3 cited Robert J. Nemiroff throughout as Robert Neimiroff. Museum apologises for the error in spelling the professor’s surname in print.