Some folks assume that professional astronomers all had telescopes when they were kids; that they grew up memorizing constellations and facts about planets, stars, and galaxies; and that they got white lab coats for their ninth birthdays.
None of those are true about me. I got a bicycle for my ninth birthday, and I’ve never owned either a white lab coat or a telescope (unless binoculars count).
The reason I became an astronomer is that I am obsessive about solving puzzles. As a child in the 1970s, I loved playing with the Soma cube puzzle. When the Rubik’s Cube went on sale in 1980, I bought one the first day I heard about it. I twiddled, solved, and created patterns on it for many moons. I own every size cube up to a 7×7x7 — that’s seven squares in each row — including a 1×1x1 that a friend made for me, and dozens of other 3D rotating, flipping, and/or sliding puzzles.
Beyond those physical manipulation puzzles, I also love the intellectual challenge that many math students fear most: word problems. To me, equations are only really interesting when applied to a situation. Give me a description, let me deduce both the method and the solution, and I‘m hooked. In addition to baseball, I played at recreational math. I felt I lost a bit of my childhood when Martin Gardner, math and science writer best known for his Scientific American math puzzles, passed away a couple years ago.
So I came to astrophysics in a sideways fashion. I was brilliant at math, and the best math problems came from physics. As I progressed through college physics, the most interesting situations were in astronomy. What could be a greater puzzling challenge than to deduce all the physics of a situation trillions of miles away simply by examining the light it emits? And the answers described possibilities not only unheard of, but also impossible to reproduce here on Earth.
When speaking to students, I tell them it’s OK not to know what you want to be when you grow up. At one time, I dreamt of being a baseball pitcher. My experience says that if you work hard and follow your passion, you never know where it might take you.
It may say “astrophysicist” on my business cards, but really, I’m just a cosmic puzzle junkie.