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Listen or download interview (mp3, 28 minutes, 26MB)
Astrophysicist Claude Canizares likes to tell his students he’s never taken an astronomy class. Born to two refugees—his father was a Cuban doctor, his mother a Jewish artist who fled Germany before World War II—Canizares grew up outside New York City with a passion for tinkering and building radios. In college and graduate school, he studied elementary particle physics, the science of matter’s most basic building blocks.
It was while writing his Ph.D. thesis that Canizares turned his attention skyward. At the time, the fledgling field of x-ray astronomy was revealing a new picture of the cosmos, one dominated by what Canizares calls the “pathological” objects of the universe. Black holes and exploding stars were bright in x-rays, which are more energetic than visible light. Lured by the field’s excitement, Canizares traded particles for x-ray spectroscopy and began working to spread out and analyze the spectrum of x-ray radiation as a prism “spreads” visible light into a rainbow. He spent over a decade developing a high-resolution spectroscope for the space-based Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Hubble of x-rays launched eight years ago and still in operation. Chandra spectroscopy has shed light on the chemical composition of exploding stars and other extreme objects, even some that are billions of light years away.
Canizares is the Bruno Rossi Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Associate Provost, and serves as the university’s Vice President for Research. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1993.
Canizares details how x-ray astronomy in general, and spectroscopy in particular, lets scientists peer inside some of the universe’s most exotic objects: collapsed and exploding stars. He recalls the inspiring dedication of his physician father and his own winding path from particles to space-based astronomy. “Enjoying the journey” is important in science, he says, especially when space-based missions launch only once every 10 or 20 years and face tremendous odds against making it to orbit. But for Canizares, science’s benefits outweigh its drawbacks: it keeps curiosity active and alive, he says, and at its best contributes to humanity.
Last Updated: 04-02-2009
The audio files linked above are part of the National Academy of Sciences InterViews series. Opinions and statements included in these audio files are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences.