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Jim Cordes

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Maja Mataric

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Back to Cool Careers in Science
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Photo of Jim Cordes Meet Jim Cordes.

He's an astronomer who uses the world's largest radio telescope to see deep into the universe. Jim's cool career in science takes him where no astromomer has gone before. How cool is that?!
Question Why did you decide to become an astronomer?
Answer I became curious about the sky whey I was a kid, around 7 years old. That was when the first satellite was launched (Sputnik) and there was great enthusiasm about getting into space. I was also fascinated by the depth and mystery of the skies. As I got older, I was instinctively attracted to solving some of the mysteries that exist in astronomy and to using new technology, particularly computers, to make observations and test theories. It is hard work, it is challenging, but it is worth it.
Question What do you do during a typical day at work?
Answer On a typical day, I prepare for classes that I teach, I talk with students who work in my lab (graduate students and undergraduate students). I also talk with other faculty and staff who are working on projects with me. Very often, there is a new discovery reported that is hot off the Web or the fax machine or in e-mail. We often get together and discuss what the new discovery might mean and whether we should devise our own model for it or consider using a telescope of some kind to study it further. I spend a lot of time writing proposals for grant money and also for use of telescopes. Every astronomer competes with other astronomers to get time on telescopes. The biggest and best telescopes are a precious resource. Then, some months or even a year after we submit our proposal, if it is accepted, we get the time on the telescope. This means that we fly off to Puerto Rico, New Mexico or Australia, in some cases. In other cases, we propose to use observatories in space, such as the Hubble Space Telescope or the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory. Then we just stay home and wait for a magnetic tape of data to arrive by Federal Express! That's when we get to work on our computers.
Question What do you enjoy most about your work? Is there anything about it you don't like?
Answer What I like most is being able to work with excited and talented young people who want to make discoveries of new things and to understand the universe. It is great fun to brainstorm with a group of people and hope to make a breakthrough on a new idea or to find a new kind of object. On the down side, it is difficult to work only 40 hours per week as an astronomer. This has its good points, of course. But it is also hard to find the right balance between doing a complete job and remaining competitive in the field while also achieving satisfaction in other aspects of life.
Question If I'm a student thinking about a career in astronomy, what can I do now to prepare?
Answer The best way to prepare is to read as much as you can about astronomy, to learn as much as you can about physics and mathematics, and to try to find a mentor who can actually get you started using telescopes. As you get older, in high school and beyond, there are opportunities in the summer to go to a university or a laboratory site to work on research projects. These are excellent chances to learn more about astronomy and technology and also to get to know people who are active in the field. When the time comes, these people can also write good letters of recommendation for you when you apply to college and to graduate school. It is also important to use computers as much as you can, especially to learn programming in a language such as C, C++ or Java.
Question Is there anything else you'd like to let Frontiers viewers know about yourself or your career?
Answer I feel very lucky and privileged to be able to do astronomy as a career.

If you would like to know more about Jim Cordes, you can read his biography and check out the questions he answered for Science in Paradise (Show 901) in the Ask the Scientists section.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.