March 6, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 12

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    Profile: Don York

    Donald York, the Horace B. Horton Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics, wears many hats, gracefully. In addition to conducting research on interstellar gas, York is the project director for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, an ambitious project scheduled to get underway later this year, which will map one quarter of the nearby Universe. He is also Director of the Apache Point Observatory in Sunspot, N.M., where the Sloan survey telescope is under construction. The observatory is home to the world's first remote-controlled ground-based telescope, a 3.5-meter telescope operated by the Astrophysical Research Consortium (of which the University is a member). York was instrumental in building both the observatory and the telescope.

    The Sloan Digital Sky Survey -- the brainchild of York, Richard Kron, Director of Yerkes Observatory and Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics, and James Gunn, an astrophysicist at Princeton University -- is one of the most ambitious collaborative projects ever undertaken by astronomers. York said directing the project is akin to "herding cats," because astronomers are used to working independently. The project currently involves more than 100 scientists and has been six years in the making. Once underway, it's expected to take five years to produce a road map of the heavens.

    York's activities range far beyond the walls of the astronomy building. He takes an active interest in the local public schools, and is a key figure in the Chicago Public Schools/University of Chicago Internet Project, which is bringing the Internet to all 24 schools in the University's immediate neighborhood.

    He received his B.S. in 1966 from MIT and his Ph.D. from Chicago in 1971. He has been a Chicago faculty member since 1982.

    How did you get interested in astronomy? Through the Boy Scouts. I used to run a scout camp when I was in high school, and I taught astronomy to fellow scouts. I'm one of a few astronomers who can still identify most of the constellations.

    And of course, I grew up in the era of Sputnik. I still remember where I was sitting when it was launched. All of us who were any good at math or physics were headed into science for the good of the country, although I didn't think about going into astronomy professionally until I was a graduate student here at the University of Chicago.

    What are the questions that drive your research? I study interstellar gas in the early Universe. We use quasars -- distant, incredibly bright objects at the edge of the Universe -- to study the interstellar gas between us and them. Quasars are like candles for us, and the interstellar gas absorbs some of the light from the quasar in different places in the spectrum. We use that absorption, called the absorption line spectrum, to study the properties of the gas between the galaxies at different times in the evolution of the Universe. The farther out towards the edge of the Universe you look, the further back in time you can see.

    How did the Sloan survey get started? Rich Kron came to me and said he'd really like to do something like this, so I said, let's get 10 or 12 experts in the country together to look at all the aspects -- the optics, the high-tech instruments, the survey itself. We had a series of three meetings at O'Hare airport. At the time, we had no thought that the sky survey would be paid for by our institutions. At about the same time, we made a related proposal to the National Science Foundation, which was rejected. But the University of Chicago gave us $150,000 in seed money, and eventually Chicago, Princeton and the Institute for Advanced Study raised $1.2 million in startup costs, and it grew from there. We've added a science partner almost every year, along with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the National Science Foundation as additional funding partners. Now we're up to eight science institutions in the U.S. and Japan.

    Your research and teaching must keep you very busy. How can you also devote so much time and energy to the public schools? I came from a modest background -- my father died when I was young, and my mother raised three children on Social Security and part-time employment so she could maximize her time at home with us. My only option was public school. When I got to MIT, I found that many of my peers had gone to private schools. The chance I have had in life is rare, so my involvement in the public schools is payback, if you will.

    Public schools are really the only vehicle that reaches into all corners of society, and it alone can provide education to all the diverse groups of people. I get very upset when I read the papers and see all the bad news about public education. I sent my own kids to public school, and of course that's part of why I'm so interested. I don't think I would be so involved if I weren't at Chicago, but here there are so many like-minded people, and there are so many diverse schools within a mile of the University.

    The students at Chicago are amazing and they've picked up the ball for their own reasons, so I can be involved without it taking up too much of my time. The small amount of time I can put in is enormously multiplied by the enthusiasm and work of the many folks involved. At least it looks that way now, although we'll have to wait several years to see the impact of what we're doing today.

    Are you thinking beyond the Sloan survey already? The Sloan survey is focused on the nearest part of the Universe, getting a real catalogue of nearby things. Of course, once you have such a catalogue, you're prepared to look back in time to compare what's out there with what we see nearby. We'd like to do a survey of the same magnitude as Sloan, but at very high redshift -- that is, very early and very distant objects.

    With Sloan, we're sticking our fingers into the curtain -- we'll be able to see tantalizing glimpses of what's out at the edge -- but we won't be able to part the curtain until we have a telescope that can look at millions of very high redshift objects. I'd like to take the expertise we have here and create a 10-telescope array of 2.5-meter telescopes, which would enable us to see clearly much farther out into the Universe.

    You don't hesitate to think big! To quote Hugo Sonnenschein in his state of the University address, "Small plans are met with appropriate scorn"!

    -- Diana Steele