Mark Krumholz of the University of California, Santa Cruz
I wasn’t one of those kids who had a backyard telescope and spent my nights staring at the sky. I was too busy staring at my computer screen, and, nerd that I was, I avoided fresh air like the plague. Instead, the way I got into astronomy was through physics. As a kid, being a physicist seemed like the closest thing possible to being a wizard, so from an early age that’s what I wanted to do. I started college with an interest in physics and computers, and I knew I wanted to do something that combined those two. I tried several different areas of physics, and I settled on astrophysics because I liked the fact that to be a good astrophysicist, you have to be something of a jack-of-all-trades. A good astrophysicist needs to know some high-energy physics, some nuclear physics, some atomic physics, some condensed matter physics, some non-linear dynamics and chaos — some of everything. I liked that approach, and so I decided in astronomy.
The computers were the key in choosing my specialty within astrophysics. It had always fascinated me that you could build models for the world in a computer, and that by plugging in the laws of physics and turning the crank, you could figure out what would happen. That sent me in the direction of computational astrophysics. I chose to work on star formation and the interstellar medium in part because that is one of the fields where computation is both most needed and most productive. The interstellar medium, the diffuse gas between the stars out of which new stars form, is a wonderfully complex system. It’s ionized, magnetized, irradiated, self-gravitating, turbulent plasma, and with so many processes shaping its evolution, computers are pretty much the only way to go. It’s also a critically important problem. If you ask someone who studies galaxy formation, or the evolution of the heavy elements, or many other areas of astrophysics what the real stumbling block in their field is, they will tell you it’s that we really don’t understand star formation.