Ep. 358: Modern Women: Sandra Faber

Our focus on female astronomers continues with Sandra Faber, and Professor of Astronomy at UC Santa Cruz. Faber was part of the team that turned up the Great Attractor, a mysterious mass hidden by the disk of the Milky Way.

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Show Notes


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Fraser Cain: Astronomy Cast; Episode 358. Sandra Faber. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly fact-based journey through the Cosmos. We’ll help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. And with me is Dr. Pamela Gay. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. And with me is Dr. Pamela Gay; a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. And the director of CosmoQuest. Hey, Pamela, how you doing?

Dr. Pamela Gay: I’m doing well. How are you doing?

Fraser Cain: Good. We landed on a comet.

Dr. Pamela Gay: We bounced around on a comet.

Fraser Cain: It’s still there. In the end, it landed.

Dr. Pamela Gay: It did. It did. But the fact that it bounced around is even more awesome than the fact that we landed there.

Fraser Cain: Yeah, and literally as we record this, there’s some pictures now of Philae’s various bounces and movements across the surface of 67P. What an amazing week this has been in space and astronomy.

Pamela Gay: Oh, I know. It almost makes up for the week prior, and as Emily Lakdawalla beautifully put it; Robots exploring space is human space exploration where the robots are our eyes, our ears, our hands. And we need to celebrate these winds and consider how much more we can do by welcoming our robot overlord.

Fraser Cain: Right. And if you love this, next year, two more missions, right, new horizons going to Pluto, Dawn reaching series. It’s going to be another good year for this kind of robotic space exploration so hang tough. It’s gonna be fun. All right. Well, let’s get cracking with this week’s episode.

Recorder: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by 8th Light Ink. 8th Light is an agile software development company. They craft beautiful applications that are durable and reliable. 8th Light provides discipline software leadership on demand and shares its expertise to make your project better. For more information, visit them online at Just remember, that’s Just remember, that’s www.the digit 8, th, Drop them a note. 8thlight, Software is their craft.

Fraser Cain: Our focus on female astronomers continues with Sandra Faber and
a Professor of Astronomer at UC Santa Cruz. Faber was part of the team that turned up the Great Attractor, a mysterious mask hidden by the disk of the Milky Way. All right. So let’s gets cracking. This is Part 2, Pamela, of our journey into investigating the lives of some modern women in astronomy. Actually, someone recommended, I think it was Guido Biber recommended that we also focus on female astronauts down the road. That might
be kind of cool, too.

Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah, we’ve never discussed astronauts really.

Fraser Cain: We haven’t discussed any astronauts actually so all astronauts. Yeah, we should do a whole other series on astronauts. That would be awesome. So Sandra Faber. Who is she?

Dr. Pamela Gay: She is a woman astronomer who is alive and has done amazing things. Like me, she’s from Massachusetts. She, according to her Wikipedia page, is from Boston which a lot of people write Boston even when they’re from all sorts of other surrounding places so I can’t say she’s necessarily a Bostonian as much as she’s from Massachusetts. She went to Swarthmore as an undergraduate. Went to Harvard as a grad student. Graduated there in 1972.

So at Harvard, Sandy Faber was actually one of Vera Rubin’s grad students and from there, she’s gone on to have an amazing career where she has bridged both doing amazing science and working on the instrumentation necessary to enable that science. There aren’t a lot of people out there who are both on the making sure the instruments get built and on making sure awesome science gets done.

They work collaboratively all the time, but she is someone that has driven both sides of that equation, working simultaneously on the development of the Keck Telescope as well as on the Wide Field planetary Camera for the Hubble Space Telescope and she may have been the only person insane enough to do both of those things at once.

Fraser Cain: Now, everyone’s pictures from the Hubble Telescope, many of them were taken from the Wide Field planetary Camera. That’s one of the ones that takes some of the prettiest pictures from the Hubble.

Dr. Pamela Gay: It has since been supplemented by a whole series of instruments but that was that first big color image, beautiful pictures, gorgeous weird corner chopped out of it that this is a Hubble image because it has a weird shaped camera. That’s the width pic camera. She actually had taken a year off to work on the east coast.

She’d been out in California as a part of the U Cal System and went to live out east, working at the Space Telescope Science Institute when they realized holy expletive Batman, something is really wrong with Hubble. And it was her team at Space Telescope Science Institute that worked hours upon hours that we probably don’t want to even think about trying to understand what had gone wrong and how to fix it.

Then years later, she was one of the people that went to the National Academies and worked her butt off, arguing that we fixed it, now let’s keep it in orbit and keep upgrading it because after the Columbia disaster, there was plan to scrap the refurbishing mission. She fought to figure out how do we get one more shuttle to fly to the Hubble. Now, you’ve jumped around a bit.

Fraser Cain: I have. I have.

Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah, so let’s go back a little bit.

Fraser Cain: No, no, it’s great. It’s great. What a phenomenal body of work. So let’s go back to sort of some of the earlier stuff that you worked on. As you said, working with Vera Rubin on Motions of Galaxies, right?

Dr. Pamela Gay: Right, and from there, she went on to be one of the names behind what’s called the Faber Jackson Relationship. This is a relationship that was noticed in elliptical galaxies. These are the ones that look kind of like a big ole swarm of stars rather than having the pretty spiral structure like Andromeda does. She found, along with her collaborator, that in big ole elliptical galaxies there is a relationship between the rate at which stars are orbiting around the center of that galaxy and the surface brightness of that galaxy. This allows us to start to get at how far away is the galaxy. If you know how bright it appears to be, you can get at how bright it actually is using this relationship by measuring the rate of stars going around which has nothing to do with how far away it is.

Fraser Cain: Right. So it’s like another one of those cosmic yard sticks that astrologers are always looking for.

Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s not the most accurate of them, but it, along with the Tully Fisher Relationship which works in spiral galaxies, these two different relationships are a first order estimate of this elliptical galaxy, this spiral galaxy is further away than this other with fairly large air bars. The Faber Jackson Relationship also started to get at what we call the Fundamental Plane for Elliptical Galaxies. This is the phenomena that has since been very well mapped out that describes if you have a big ole elliptical galaxy, the bigger it is, the faster stars will be orbiting its massive center. So you have this increase in orbital rate.

The dispersion of the rate in which stars seem to be going around. For more complicated reasons, these have lower surface brightness. So if you have a small mass elliptical next to a large mass elliptical at the same distance and you look at how bright they are per square pixel, the big one is going to be much more spread out, much more diffused and have a lower surface brightness but because it’s so much bigger, it’s going to have a much larger total luminosity. So you have this larger total luminosity, larger rate of stars going around, larger mass, lower surface brightness, all of this gets tied together and we use this to define a plane that cuts through the parameters of luminosity surface brightness and velocity dispersion.

Fraser Cain: And so you’ve got this situation where the [inaudible] that work there, type 1 supernova, you can’t count on them to go off in the galaxy that you’re hoping to study, right?

Dr. Pamela Gay: Exactly.

Fraser Cain: So if you do get one going off in an elliptical gallery, now you’ve got some corroboration and you can test your different methodologies. I guess the other method that works at that range is the Doppler – sorry, the Hubble flow –

Dr. Pamela Gay: The Hubble Flew.

Fraser Cain: – the Hubble Constant at that point, right. So the two can kind of help you get at the distance.

Dr. Pamela Gay: And a large part of what she’s done throughout her entire career is trying to figure out how galaxies trace out the large scale structure of our entire universe. She is actually one of a small group of, what are called the Seven Samurai’s. These are seven scientists that are responsible in the 1980s for measuring how a bunch of different galaxy clusters and large scale structures appeared to be flowing towards this thing that is blocked by the disk of our Milky Way Galaxy. This thing –

Fraser Cain: Are they UFOs?

Dr. Pamela Gay: No.

Fraser Cain: It must be UFOs, right?

Dr. Pamela Gay: We call it The Great Attractor.

Fraser Cain: Is it a dimensional portal to another space?

Dr. Pamela Gay: Oh, gosh, some people write papers like that. You’re triggering bad thoughts. Anyway, these seven individuals, David Burstein, Roger Davies, Allen Dressler, Sandra Faber, Sandy Faber however you want to call it, Donald Lynden-Bell, Roberto Terlevich, Gary Wegner, they all worked together studying how galaxies are unevenly spaced throughout the universe and looking at their flow as they appear to have motions that are superimposed on top of the motions that you anticipate just from the expansion of the galaxy.

This additional motion on top of – I’m sorry, on the expansion of the universe, this additional motion that is on top of the expansion of the universe has to come from something. It’s gravitational attraction generally. Our own local group is galling into the vergo super cluster. And then Seven Samurai discovered all of these things falling into the Great Attractor which like I said, it’s hidden behind the disk of the Milky Way so we can’t actually see what it is, which is really annoying. But whatever it is, looking at the flows of everything towards it, it’s about 250 million light-years away. It’s in the constellation Centaurus. It’s just really annoyingly in the disk of galaxy where we can’t see it.

Fraser Cain: But it’s another one of those things, right, it’s been given the name the Great Attractor, and it’s light and dark matter, dark energy, black holes. You get this name and it just conjures people’s imaginations. So if you just said there’s a galactic super cluster that away and –

Dr. Pamela Gay: That we can’t see.

Fraser Cain: – that we can’t see because it just happens, like bad luck, happens to be that it’s on the other side of the core of the Milky Way which completely blocks our view, but the galaxies above the Milky Way and below the Milky Way are all sort of sliding towards this Great Attractor. But it is just a large galaxy cluster. Don’t panic. It is not going to tear a hole in the fabric of the space time calliope.

Dr. Pamela Gay: No. And it’s really kind of crazy the way people have written some of the most insane papers about all the things that the Great Attractor could possibly be. And now it’s just a giant galaxy cluster that we can’t see. That’s it.

Fraser Cain: Right. Okay. So Sandra Faber worked on really identifying this motion and helping to really show that there is this strange motion of all these galaxies. And just one thing. In the modern age with these modern inferred telescopes, astronomers have been able to see more and more through this dust and gas that’s clogged the disk of the Milky Way so they’re really narrowing in exactly where this thing is and kind of what it is so it’s becoming less and less mysterious all the time. Again, don’t panic.

Pamela Gay: Yes. We need a big happy yellow sticker. Don’t panic.

Fraser Cain: Don’t panic. Okay. Great. Worked on that. What else?

Dr. Pamela Gay: So that was what she did in the early 80s. In ’85, she began work on the Keck Telescope, working on one of its spectroscopic instruments. This is an instrument, the most that would allow the red shifts of galaxies to be readily determined with high precision. And this is the type of data that you really need to start mapping out in even higher detail, the galaxy motions that she’d already been working on with her work with the Seven Samurai.

About the same time, she joined in the team that was building the Wide Field Planetary Camera for Hubble. So here she is working on the Hubble Space Telescopes imager and working on one of Keck Telescope Specter Graphs, all of this in hopes of getting amazing data later on, that would allow her to continue mapping out the large scale structure of the universe. Now, while Keck went along at a fairly good clip and went fairly successfully, although they had a lot of issues initially with their multi-mirror system, nothing big to stress out about, Hubble didn’t quite have as happy a beginning as one might wish.

Fraser Cain: Well, it’s important to note I think that Keck is, until just recently, the biggest telescope in the world. Right. It’s a monster. A 10 meter telescope in Hawaii. Top of the line adaptive optics. You couldn’t work on a finer instrument and use it for a more powerful purpose. So the fact that she did that and also worked on something that would do even better than the Keck Telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope, but yeah, so all these hopes and dreams, launch the Hubble Space Telescope. First images came back and –

Dr. Pamela Gay: No. The universe said no. So as Sandy’s work figured out, when they ground the Hubble Space Telescope, they didn’t grind it precisely right. They brought it to focus in the wrong place. So while it had a perfectly ground mirror, it was perfectly ground to the wrong specifications. And that meant that in the optical assembly that it was part of, they couldn’t get the telescope in focus. Not being able to get a telescope in focus and in this case, it wasn’t that it was just out of focus, move the eye piece in and out, moral equivalent of moving the camera in and out, no, it had a nasty stigmatism so this is where different parts of the mirror focused in different ways.

And they were able to figure out how to fix this by putting a new corrective lenses packet in, but that required a second space shuttle mission. And it was not easy to figure out all of this. And in between these two instances, we also lost the space shuttle program for a few years. So her career was not an easy one you might say.

Fraser Cain: Yeah, the Challenger – I’m trying to think of the timeline, right, so the Hubble was launched ’90, ’95.

Dr. Pamela Gay: No, Hubble was launched April 24th, 1990.

Fraser Cain: 1990. Okay. So –

Dr. Pamela Gay: So it came after Challenger. It was one of the first big launches after Challenger, but – okay. Let me rephrase that. We didn’t lose the shuttle program as much as we lost the planned ability of the shuttle to go grab Hubble and bring it back down to earth. So Hubble was built and designed prior to Challenger. Hubble was designed that it could be put back into the cargo bay of the shuttle, brought back down to earth and have its instrument packs swapped in and out. It was designed to have new instruments put into it. It was designed to have upgrades.

Now, the problem is that after the Challenger disaster, it was decided that it probably wasn’t safe to bring down heavy telescopes, or anything else for that matter, to the planet earth. This meant that we stopped running the space station like things, the space labs that were in cargo bay. We didn’t bring things back down to the planet. That means that we couldn’t bring the Hubble back down to the planet to fix and repair.

We had to figure out – I was in high school so I had nothing to do with this, people like Sandy Faber had to figure out how do we, while in orbit, while dealing with astronauts and gloves instead of technicians in – well, just latex gloves which are different than space gloves, how do we figure out how to add in a whole new optical kit it wasn’t designed for, fix this horrible aberration and get it back to doing this spectacular science that it was designed to do?

Fraser Cain: Yeah. Okay. So that kept her busy.

Dr. Pamela Gay: So they were able to get it fixed and they did get Keck, which Keck Observatory is actually two telescopes. So just to make that extra clear, these are two giant telescopes that were among the first telescopes to use segmented mirrors. They weren’t the first but they were among the first. So she’s dealing with brand new orbital technology that flew flawed and had to be fixed. She’s dealing with fairly brand new earth-based technology and at the same time, producing amazing science.

Fraser Cain: And she’s still working and –

Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah, she’s 69 years old and still going strong. Still sitting on panels. Still teaching classes, still doing research.

Fraser Cain: And she won a pile of awards.

Dr. Pamela Gay: She has. No Noble Prize. I don’t think there’s any women alive in physics astronomy that have actually won a Noble Prize which is a little sad. But I think she’s won just about everything else you can win which is kind of cool. And she continues to lead teams, which at a certain point, when you get to lead the team, that means you get all the paperwork, but it also means that you get to make sure the science that you want to see accomplished is what gets accomplished. Today she is the leader on the Candles Project which is continuing to map out at ever higher red shifts, at ever greater resolutions. The large scale structure of our universe.

Fraser Cain: That is awesome. So again, I have to ask, have you met her?

Dr. Pamela Gay: Yes. Actually, I have. I got to meet her when I was a graduate student. She came out to the University of Texas. Gave a great talk and then spent some time sitting around with us graduate students, and I was just a baby graduate student at that point, I was first or second year, and telling us what it was like to work in all of these high stress environments and it was one of those conversations that kind of leaves you going, oh great, I thought grad school was really hard.

Apparently this is the easy part, but then to listen to her, it was just like if you believe in something and you’re curious and you need to know the answer to your science problem in order for your life to be happy, she didn’t phrase it this way but the message I took away from it was if you really want to know the answer to a problem, it’s worth putting in the time. It’s worth living through the stress to get at those answers to those problems, to those scientific questions.

And the other thing that she did that really impressed me is she did all of this while being a mom. You don’t hear about that a lot. What you hear about a lot is the woman who decided to put her science career ahead of having children. She didn’t do that. She had the family. She did the engineering. She did the science and while on one hand it’s kind of a bad thing to say that a woman has to try and do it all, she is one of the women who did manage to do it all and while she didn’t always make it look easy, she made it look like it was worth trying to do because great things are possible.

Fraser Cain: Yeah, it’s like – I mean, you don’t have kids, I have kids and it is always hard. There’s never a time when it’s easy and so definitely to balance those things all out. It partly keeps you grounded in making sure that you remember why you’re doing a lot of the work that you’re doing. Now, not that I’ve been discovering enormous new universe galaxy clusters but the work is ever present and you always have this tension between the work that you’re doing and the family life. I think the two definitely sort of influence and help each other out.

Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah, I don’t have kids but I have a horse and I know that that sounds like a stupid analogy but this morning I was out at the barn and the horse that I’ve been leasing, I don’t actually own her, the horse that I’ve been leasing, was having a complete freak-out because snow and things and stuff on the roof. Crazy horse. And I had work that I had to do. It was like okay, I have to make choices. And that’s nothing like the choices you have to make when you have children but Cosmo Quest is really my child. It’s my vision and just trying to have a horse is the limit of my capacity.

I look at the people who have actual children rather than furry children and I killed all my fish during the International Year of Astronomy. I didn’t mean to, my tank died brutally. I haven’t had fish since the International Year of Astronomy. I don’t know how she did it. This isn’t me being blasé, this is me saying quite honestly, as someone who runs a research team and glued myself to the chair that I’m sitting in right now for the past two weeks to write grants and everything else to keep my staff funded, I don’t know, in all honestly, how someone accomplishes everything that she has accomplished in her life and remained sane.

She was perfectly delightful to work with and from what I understand, she’s the kind of person that knows when to be tough as nails and draw a line in the sand because something is important and when to just be nice and that’s a really hard balance to have. That was my one experience with her and that’s what I’ve always heard.

Fraser Cain: That’s really cool. Cool. Well, thank you very much, Pamela. We’ll continue on this conversation next week.

Dr. Pamela Gay: Sounds great, Fraser.

Recorder: Thanks for listening to Astronomy Cast, a non-profit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at You can email us at Tweet us at Astronomycast. Like us on Facebook or Circle us on Google Plus. We record our show live on Google Plus every Monday at 12:00 p.m. Pacific, 3:00 p.m. Eastern or 2,000 Greenwich Mean Time. If you miss the live event, you can always catch up over at

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One Response to Ep. 358: Modern Women: Sandra Faber

  1. Amy January 5, 2017 at 5:04 pm #

    The download link gave me the episode for Vera Rubin

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