April 18, 2011

Yankee Transplant: ASU professor Jim Bell

Posted: April 18, 2011
Jim Bell in the "vomit comet"
Jim Bell floats weightless in the NASA KC-135 “vomit comet” airplane during some CONTOUR mission experiment testing in 2001.

After 15 years in upstate New York (much of the time as a professor at Cornell University) astronomer and planetary scientist Jim Bell migrated to the Valley of the Sun. Read on to learn more about one of SESE’s newest professors. View the SESE Source version (PDF) here.

So, you’re an astronomer and planetary scientist, is this career a fulfillment of a lifelong dream? I could see you as a precocious kindergartner proudly declaring you would one-day visit the Moon or study Mars.

When I was growing up they were driving cars on the Moon. Apollo was a big inspiration. I was very lucky to grow up in a rural place so there was a clear night sky for viewing with a telescope. My parents helped pay for the telescope, and they would come out once in awhile so I could point things out to them. The night sky was just kind of a weird obsession, and a cool hobby to have. Back in the day, kids would collect coins or baseball cards. And I would say, “Your friend can always have a better Pete Rose card or whatever but nobody has a better Saturn.” You’re looking at the real thing.

The other thing that a lot of my colleagues from my generation were inspired by was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series. When his show came along it was the first time that we could get this information directly from an expert who could actually communicate with people. It was on once a week and was mostly about the solar system. It’s hard to remember when you couldn’t just go on the internet and find stuff. You could only find information about science and discoveries if it happened to be on the news or the newspaper. I think that’s why that show made such an impact.

You studied at California Institute of Technology and University of Hawaii, why did you pick those schools?

At the time, Caltech, was one of the few places that you could actually major in astronomy as an undergrad. A lot of people major in physics and concentrate in astronomy, but I wanted to major in astronomy. My whole world was in New England, so going to California was really cool to be able to see some new things. And for graduate school, in the mid 80s, there were very few NASA missions – it was a very lean time. The Vikings had finished their work at Mars in the early 80s, Voyager was out there in the distant solar system but there really wasn’t much else. So to do cutting-edge planetary research you had to use telescopes. Hawaii has spectacular observatories at Mauna Kea, and as a graduate student at the university you are guaranteed a certain amount of time for your thesis work on the telescopes and I took advantage of that.

When you were an undergrad did you have your career route planned out, or did it all just fall into place serendipitously?

Oh, I had it all planned out and then it went all horribly wrong! [laughs] So, I thought I wanted to be an astronomer, but when I went to Caltech I discovered that at the time it was mostly theory work. I’m not crazy about math, I’d do some math if I had to, but it wasn’t the kind of thing I wanted to spend my whole life doing. I wanted to do more hands-on observational work, working with instruments, maybe field work – that kind of stuff. So it was an eye opener; it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Sort of accidentally I discovered that there was this other group there in the geology department who were doing planetary science. I went to work as just a research grunt analyzing data sets for a couple of faculty members there. I was looking at some spectra of Jupiter to start, and it was one of these horrible projects where you have a roll of printer output – like the size of a roll of paper towels – and its got spectra on it and you just have to unroll it and find the absorption bands and document their positions. It just goes on and on … but I really enjoyed it.

I worked with Ed Danielson – one of the people who designed and built the Voyager cameras, the Viking cameras, and the original MGS MOC cameras – he helped me get into the Voyager Uranus and Neptune flybys at JPL as a student. I wasn’t doing any science work, I was just running for coffee and getting people pizzas – but just to be there ... just to be there when these first pictures from Uranus and Neptune were coming down. It was so exciting; I would get coffee for the rest of my life if I could just be in that room!

With your mixed background of astronomy and planetary geology you’re a perfect fit for SESE. What about SESE attracted you?

It was partly that mix: Am I really an astronomer? Am I really a geologist? What the heck am I? Having a lot of colleagues who also have their feet in these different doors is great! The bigger thing though that I am excited about is the connection with the engineers because I work with a lot of engineers and have been involved in a number of projects where we had to work really close together. To have those folks just down the hall co-teaching a class, or working with the same students, or a lab next door is great. SESE is an experiment and I’m not sure anyone knows how it’s going to work but I think it’s a great experiment. Some of the decision also involved getting the heck out of upstate New York winters!

What’s on your To-Do list?

I have a giant To-Do List. I’m working on a number of NASA projects. The Mars rovers are still going; I’m still the leader of the science team for the color cameras. When you came in, I was working on something for Mark’s [Robinson] camera team. And I’m also working with a couple of students who are doing a science analysis of the LROC images – they’re interested in explosive volcanism on the Moon. I am trying to find 10 minutes a day to work on an MRO paper that’s about 80% done. A new project is a proposed camera for NASA’s Europa Orbiter mission. If it survives the budget crisis, the current plan is that it would launch in 2020, and it doesn’t get to Jupiter until 2025, and it doesn’t get to Europa orbit until 2028. The mission would be designed to find proof that there is an ocean there.

In addition to that lengthy to-do list are you also teaching?

I’m going to teach next summer or fall, but I don’t know what yet. I’m interested in the online classes – I’ve never done online classes … I’m a little scared of them. But it is a great way to reach a lot of students.

You published a children’s book. Are there others on the horizon?

I actually have three books. They are all these kind of coffee-table books. Two are 3-d books geared toward kids, and one is called Postcards from Mars and it’s the story about the rovers. And I’m doing another “fun” science book about the history of astronomy and space exploration. I’m about halfway through the writing.

And what can you tell me about the Jim Bell who isn’t busy in the office? Any hobbies?

Softball, baseball. I’m hoping that SESE has a softball team.

I guess SESE had better put together a softball team.

Nikki Cassis, ncassis@asu.edu
602-710-7169
School of Earth and Space Exploration