When Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 smacked into Jupiter in 1994, astronomers waited nervously for the images from the Hubble Space Telescope (“ HST”). Never before had so much instrumentation, both on the Earth and in space, been readied to record an event of this magnitude: but no one was sure what would happen or whether we would get back good data on it.

Video of the Hubble advisory team getting the first results in was broadcast on the news. There was a group of excited scientists crowded around a computer monitor. One of them, the team leader, a woman with thick-lensed glasses and long blonde hair, was particularly expressive of the delight the team had when the HST images of the comet impact proved to be so dramatic:

"Oh my God! Look at that! Look at that!"

This expression is quoted on a "Christian" website which asserts that Shoemaker-Levy 9 was a sign of the Apocalypse. (www.geocities.com/Eureka/3401/P2.html). I think it just proves that Heidi is a native Californian. The news then showed her opening a bottle of champagne.

The team leader was Heidi Hammel, my sister. Heidi is an astronomer who studies the atmospheres of the outer plants, Neptune and Uranus. Thanks to a dramatic comet impact with Jupiter, I’ve seen her on TV.

How do you recognize a future scientist? Watch them play. Our family used to have an extensive collection of Lego ™ bricks. After exhausting the intended purposes of the Legos, both my sister and I got creative with them. I pretended the different-sized bricks were different warships --battleships, cruisers, destroyers-- and had mock naval battles. I am now a worthless parasite. Heidi, on the other hand, carefully sorted all of them by shape, color and size, and counted every last one of them, and wrote down the results.

My contribution to Heidi’s career has been minimal. I can, however, take credit for encouraging her to follow through on her application to MIT. She was worried that our family could not pay for it. I told her that if MIT wanted her enough to accept her, they would make sure she could afford it. I told her to just march into the Financial Aid Office and yell: “Here I am! What are you going to do about it?” Apparently she took my advice quite literally.

As an undergraduate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Heidi majored in “planetary science”, did graduate work at the University of Hawaii (which she did not like as much as you might because of her phobias regarding bugs) postgraduate work at Jet Propulsion Laboratory and then back at MIT as a research scientist. She has been awarded prizes both for her research (including the 1996 Urey Prize of the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences) and for her public outreach (most recently, the Exploratorium's 1998 Public Understanding of Science Award). As the latter award confirms, Heidi puts a lot of effort onto teaching and public outreach, and I think she explains her work to laypeople very well.

Dr. Hammel is currently a senior research scientist associated with the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and divides her time between being home with three kids in Connecticut and doing observing runs with big telescopes from the top of Mauna Kea, on the Big Island of Hawaii. She is currently serving on the advisory committee for the development of the space telescope that will replace the HST.

Biography in progress by "Dr. Fred" Bortz (children's science writer) with lots of pics of Heidi at work on Mauna Kea: http://www.fredbortz.com/HammelBio/

Cute Heidi stories about why she became an astronomer:


Blurb with fairly recent photo:


Neptune stuff by Dr. Hammel or about her work:




It feels weird to fact-node one's own sister, but if my calculations are correct, this writeup puts me in Level 4 under the Honor Roll system, so I thought I'd make it something special.

Update: See Discover Magazine, Nov. 2002, "The 50 Most Important Women in Science" By Kathy A. Svitil.

http://www.discover.com/nov_02/feat50.html: nice pic with my nephew Lucas

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