Student Essay Contest

Splendor of the Heavens: Dr. Knapp’s Astronomical Odyssey

2006 AWM Essay Contest: High School Level Winner

by Margarite Bechis

The nearest star, Alpha Centauri, is nearly 4 x 1013 kilometers away from Earth. Whereas the night-sky may provide a panorama of uncertainty and loneliness, it can also be cause for many an inquiry. While some people discover their passion in the accelerating universe and theoretical questions about parallel universes governed by possibly unearthly laws of physics, Jill Knapp, a current professor of astronomy at Princeton University, realized hers in the lives and constituents of stars. When I visited Dr. Knapp, I quickly learned that her looking at Saturn through the telescope of her father’s friend fostered in her a life-long fascination with the field of observational astronomy.
When she peered through that telescope, Dr. Knapp was looking up at Scotland’s night-sky. World War II had left in its path many crumbling English port-towns, one of which was Dr. Knapp’s initial home. Shortly after war’s end, Dr. Knapp and her parents moved to Scotland. Although her family was lacking in financial resources, Dr. Knapp’s circumstances were enough to fuel her curiosity about science and math even before her discovery of the wonders of space. Her dad had earned a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry in England and worked at a pharmaceutical company extracting painkillers. His acquaintances, like the amateur astronomer with the telescope through which Dr. Knapp looked, were sources of inspiration to enter the fields of math and science. Dr. Knapp’s mother was a part-time nurse. In her free time, she would travel to Edinburgh and pick up science books from second-hand bookshops. Dr. Knapp never seemed to have enough books to pore over. During the interview, she described herself as having been a sickly child. Her father used to joke, “you’re the kind of person who would be, in civilized society, put out on a hill.” Although Dr. Knapp was not up to par with Roman standards of health, she occupied herself with the books her mom found. When Dr. Knapp was not sick, she made time for science and math. Geometry especially interested her. When she was six, she brought her geometry book to a party, sat herself in a corner, and worked out theorems and corollaries. Another book she read as a little girl was “Splendor of the Heavens.” Coupled with an interest in shapes and sizes and stars, Dr. Knapp knew what she wanted to pursue before she even started secondary school.
At Dalkeith high school, Dr. Knapp followed a relatively regimented curriculum. Much to her chagrin, she was forced to take French instead of German. In the six years of her secondary schooling, Dr. Knapp took five years of both physics and chemistry. Although she took only three years of biology, she considered evolutionary biology most interesting aspect.
Whereas her dad received Bachelor’s degree in chemistry, Dr. Knapp received a Bachelor’s degree in physics at the University of Edinburgh. Afterwords, she enrolled in the University of Maryland, College Park, Ph. D. astronomy program. In her research on the distribution of gas in the galaxy and the mass and temperatures of stars being born, Dr. Knapp met Frank Kerr, the advisor she now considers the most influential person in her career. Dr. Knapp was the only woman in a program with 44 men. Naturally, her peers assumed Dr. Knapp was attending class to find a suitable partner for marriage. As a result, she was not taken seriously in her academic endeavors. Dr. Knapp exclaimed at one point in our conversation about certain male scientists that “they’re young for a start, and then they’re scientists.” Frank Kerr was not of this category. He did not undermine Dr. Knapp’s confidence and intelligence.
Also in Maryland, Dr. Knapp met visiting professor of cosmology, Beatrice Tinsley. Dr. Knapp described her as “the great synthesizer,” admiring her ability to see connections in science. Through her continued research of the elements of evolving stars and the gas content of the universe as part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), Dr. Knapp has also made connections. She relates her early interest in evolutionary biology to the evolutionary universe. Further, her research has allowed her to connect the present universe with the past universe and present stars with past stars.
Specifically, SDSS employs a telescope in New Mexico to take wide-angle pictures of certain portions of the sky. The telescope is specially built to observe spectra, enabling astronomers to calculate the redshift of a galaxy. Dr. Knapp referenced a checkerboard while describing how the telescope’s CCDs (charge-coupled devices) recorded light. With the telescope’s data, Dr. Knapp discerns the size of a galaxy and pinpoints its location on a three-dimensional map. Further, Dr. Knapp hopes the measurements collected on the distribution of galaxies in the universe will be precise enough to decide among the competing models of the birth and evolution of the universe.
On closing, Dr. Knapp described the importance of statistics to her field. Unlike theoretical astronomy, observational astronomy is based on a certain degree of uncertainty. Statistics allows astronomers to define their level of confidence in their measurements and conclusions concerning topics ranging from the amount of energy coming from a star to the distribution of fluctuations of gas in the universe. Dr. Knapp gave me a “down-to earth” (pun intended) example of the importance of statistics: “Statistics allows you to predict on a large scale. While you have no clue what one person will do in ten years, you can predict with great accuracy the proportion of people who will, say, go into the sciences.”
Dr. Knapp now teaches courses ranging from observational astronomy to interstellar medium and introductory astrophysics. She hopes to pique her students’ curiosity in much the same way as a peek at Saturn stimulated hers. While people’s questions about what is beyond the universe are cause for many a sleepless night, Dr. Knapp focuses on questions that can be answered within the next decade. She takes one step at a time, contributing her knowledge to the scientific world, and ultimately, to future generations of astronomers that have yet to discover the awesome embrace of the universe.
About the Student:
My name is Margarite Bechis. I live in Yardley, Pennsylvania and am a high school senior at Mount Saint Joseph Academy in Flourtown of the same state. My science and math interests are quite broad, but I have pinpointed astronomy and microbiology, and the mathematics pertaining to each, to be of utmost interest. I hope to pursue a combination of both areas in college for possible majors or minors.