July 30, 2004
Chris Martin is a physicist. It might have been otherwise. As a life passion, music has always been a close second. Now, as principal investigator for the Galaxy Evolution Explorer project which studies the universe in ultraviolet light, Martin is a scientist and manager by day, classical pianist by night. Both pursuits provide intense enjoyment, with one offering a livelihood as well.
Martin's early interest in science was nurtured by his father and grandfather, both science teachers. Another influence was famed physicist Dr. Richard Feynman. As a high school senior, Martin read the Feynman Lectures and was hooked.
With an undergraduate degree in physics from Oberlin College in Ohio, he zoomed in on ultraviolet light astronomy as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. Two successful experiments using ultraviolet instruments in space, one on a rocket and one on the Space Shuttle, produced two doctoral theses. Even then, Martin envisioned an ultraviolet survey from space of the entire sky. Such a mission would help reveal how galaxies have formed and evolved throughout the history of the universe.
Over the course of a decade, Martin worked on proposals to NASA for such a mission. In 1993, just as he attained tenure at Columbia University in New York, his team's first ultraviolet sky survey (the Joint Ultraviolet Nightsky Observatory) was selected by NASA. That was also the year he received an offer to join the faculty of Caltech in Pasadena. Although the mission never flew, the team drew on its experience with the mission in developing the proposal for the Galaxy Evolution Explorer mission. In 1997, after Martin had been at Caltech four years, the Galaxy Evolution Explorer proposal was accepted.
As if having a day-job as a rocket scientist weren't enough reason to come to Southern California, Hollywood gave him another. Soon after he arrived at Caltech, Martin was picked to play (of all things) a rocket scientist in a Peter Pan™ peanut butter commercial.
"It is amazing what goes into a 30-second commercial. There must have been 50 people on the set," he says.
As for music, piano lessons in the first grade were enough to light the fire. He played by ear and continued to teach himself to read music. When he arrived at Oberlin, he exulted in its famous Conservatory of Music, rooms full of Steinways, and faculty of master music teachers.
More challenging for Martin than the music or the physics has been his leadership role in the Galaxy Evolution Explorer project. "The daily problems of building a team, managing budgets, handling personnel issues, and just keeping the momentum going can totally swamp the science. I didn't learn to do any of these things in any class," he confesses. "I was very shy as a child. But I have had to learn to deal with people and all these other issues."
People he has always enjoyed dealing with are his students. He teaches freshman and sophomore physics, mostly to non-physics majors. "The kids keep me on my toes. You can't explain something carefully step-by-step if you don't completely understand it yourself."
Other kids keeping him on his toes are his own. His 8-year-old son likes video games. Martin told the boy about the early command-and-response-line video games he himself used to play, with no graphics.
"He thought that was really cool, and wanted me to program a game like that for him. Now he thinks up new games for me to program. Soon he'll be programming his own games," says Martin.
Martin and his team at Caltech and other universities are now happily drowning in scientific data. They already have the seeds of at least 30 scientific papers, describing important new findings about the birth of stars, the evolution of galaxies, and the history of the universe.