The Department of Planetary Sciences, Page 4
We’re vitally important to all solar system exploration, as well as some astronomical research. We have been and continue to be involved in essentially every space mission that there is. Ground-based solar system work had been based here for a very long time. The very first lunar atlas was made by LPL people. The Spacewatch camera was the first asteroid survey anywhere in the world and it’s so successful that others sprang up, and the Catalina Sky Survey that was originally started as an undergraduate project has blossomed into a whole research group.
What keeps me here in Arizona is the quality of the graduate students. I don’t know any other department in the United States or even abroad that has this quality of students. The students are by and large a likable bunch of people who work hard, and a lot of the research initiatives are actually possible because of the graduate students.
The field trips started in ’84. Throughout my career I have always led field trips. When I came here I found, talking to Laurel Wilkening, that there was actually a line item in the budget for field trips. Gerard Kuiper was an avid field tripper, and as part of the LPL budget, he had a substantial amount of money every year for field trips, which had not been used since he died.
Now, his style was very different than mine. His field trips were for the faculty, and the students were not invited. They would fly to Hawaii, or to Mexico. He was an advocate of field trips, even though students weren’t welcome.
I had a 180 degree view of that. I had always invited faculty on field trips, but very few actually participated. The trips are basically run by the students. I generally pick out an area where a large number of students want to go, something they’re interested in, and they always change. In the 26 years I’ve been here, there have been no repeats. Sometimes we go to the same area, but it’s always different.
The way I arrange it is we decide on some kind of main topic. The main thing is that we go to see terrestrial features that have a planetary analog. We always have to talk about the planetary connections. When you look at something on the Earth, what are you learning about some process that occurs on a distant planet, and can you tell us about that? Unfortunately we can’t take field trips to the Moon and Mars, at least not yet, so we have to do the best we can on Earth.
Typically I’ll have maybe, oh, between 20 to 30 students along, sometimes spouses, sometimes staff people and so on. But the main thing everybody has to do is everybody has to choose a topic and give a talk on that topic. Spouses are welcome but they have to give a talk. In recent years I’ve brought my own spouse along a couple of times, and she has to live by the same rules: She gives a talk. It doesn’t always have to be about science; we’ve had good talks from people in history, or archeologists, or botanists or whatever. But everybody has to participate in that sense.
We’ve been making field trip handouts since about 1992. This little handbook is basically compiled by everybody who has a topic, and we choose the topics before we go, something of some geologic interest. Each student prepares a couple of pages on their topic, and they’re expected to give a talk, between 20 minutes and 30 minutes, on this topic.
The whole collection now is almost half a shelf, which covers most of geology and planetary science. If you wanted to learn about this stuff, you could do worse than looking through the field trip guides.
I usually help the students along by making most of the central topics. Some people will volunteer topics, and other people will take one of the central topics and go off from that. Each topic is usually associated with a stop. We’ll go to some appropriate place and the person gives their talk. Some topics don’t have particular stops and we’ll have fireside chat talks—after dinner people will give their talks.
We used to have a fellow from the naval ROTC [Reserve Officer Training Corps] come with us for a couple of years. We went on a field trip with volcanoes, and he volunteered to give a fireside chat on his experiences as Commander of the Subic naval base in the Philippines. He was Commander during the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, so he talked about what it was like to be right underneath a volcano. He said one thing to learn was: Don’t fly jet planes through volcanic eruptions; that was a bad idea.
The students here have extremely good morale. I think the field trips help with that. Every semester they go out for three to five days—that’s the duration of these trips—and sometimes we get into trouble, we get a little stuck, we have break-downs, we have things that go wrong. At night we usually gather around the fire—we do primitive camping, we don’t stay in hotels. We go out, we take our own water and food and camping gear and stuff, and find someplace far away from the road and just sit down and camp.
After dinner we have our fireside chats. Believe or not, the students actually encourage these things. After dinner they’ll be questions: “Well, what about the fireside chat? Let’s have the talk!” Then afterwards people will sit around, they’ll talk—almost always there’s a telescope brought along. There are a couple of guitars usually. The students really seem to bond. I think the field trips help with that.