Superstar astronomer returns home
December 26, 2013
By Christina Corrales-Toy
NEW — 6 a.m. Dec. 26, 2013
Issaquah grad IDs most distant galaxy ever detected
Issaquah High School freshman Colin Robitaille took off his shoe and thrust it into the hands of guest speaker Steven Finkelstein.
“Here, sign it,” Robitaille said as he forked over a black Sharpie.
Finkelstein, a 1999 Issaquah graduate, doesn’t often get autograph requests, much less one on a shoe, but that’s not to say he shouldn’t have fans clamoring for his signature.
The University of Texas astronomy professor recently made history with his discovery of the most distant and oldest galaxy ever detected.
“That may be the first autograph I’ve ever given, which would also make it the first shoe autograph,” Finkelstein said of his autograph seeker. “I think I owe him money for devaluing his shoes.”
Finkelstein returned to his old stomping grounds Dec. 18 to give a lecture about his discovery and profession in front of an audience filled with physics and science students.
A lot changed at the school since he graduated, Finkelstein said of the building’s dramatic remodel, but one thing — the presence of the man who inspired him to pursue science —remained the same.
That man, longtime Issaquah High teacher Tom Haff, had the privilege of introducing Finkelstein at the beginning of the lecture.
“That’s the story I tell people when they ask why I got into astronomy — Well, I had a great high school physics teacher. If I didn’t, I don’t know what I would have done,” Finkelstein said.
Haff said he was on the way to a physics conference as he heard about Finkelstein’s discovery, and was startled, but not surprised, when he recognized the name of one of his prized pupils.
“It’s really special that I’ve touched some kids’ lives like Steve, and have them go on and do some really great things in pure and applied sciences,” Haff said.
Finkelstein’s research focuses on the discovery and characterization of some of the most distant galaxies in the universe, using tools such as the Hubble Space Telescope.
Using the Hubble and observations from the Keck telescope in Hawaii, Finkelstein and his team found a galaxy formed about 700 million years after the universe was created.
Considering the universe is 13.8 billion years old, the newly found galaxy is from a relatively early stage in its lifetime.
What’s doubly interesting about the ancient galaxy is the amount of stars it produces, Finkelstein said. That galaxy forms about 300 new stars per year, compared to the two that the Milky Way produces annually.
Finkelstein works as an assistant professor at the University of Texas in Austin, where he teaches undergraduates, advises graduate students as they work on their doctorates and performs cutting-edge research.
“Every single day, at least when I have at least 20 minutes to do some research, I have a chance to see something no other person has seen ever,” he said of the reason he entered the astronomy field.
His favorite part of his scholastic duties is the research, which isn’t as glamorous as one would think, he told the audience of students.
“When you’re an astronomer, you don’t wear white lab coats,” he said. “For the most part, you’re sitting in front of your computer, which sounds boring, but you are really probing at the secrets of the universe.”
Finkelstein was in town early to visit family for the holidays, but made the stop at Issaquah High because he said he believes it’s one of his duties as an astronomer to inspire the next generation of scientists.
“I couldn’t be prouder of a young person like Steve going ahead and passing the torch, so to speak, to that next generation,” Haff said.
While the Issaquah graduate said he was proud of his discovery, the work never ceases, considering researchers have made only a dent in surveying the entire universe.
It’s likely that sooner, rather than later, someone will find an even older and more distant galaxy, and knowing Finkelstein’s judicious team, his research will likely have a hand in it.
“I hope it’s us,” he said of the next greatest discovery.