Profile: Dr. David Thompson
Dave Thompson was in high school during the Sputnik era. While
else was watching the satellites,
he found the rest of the sky fascinating. He also became interested in
physics, because that is the science of how
After doing undergraduate work in physics at Johns Hopkins
started grad school at the University of Maryland. As a teaching
he met Steve Holt and Carl Fichtel, astrophysicists
with Goddard's Astrophysics Science Division. They made high energy astrophysics
enough that Dave went to Goddard to do his thesis work.
Dave Thompson's thesis research used a balloon-borne gamma-ray
to study gamma rays produced by cosmic ray
particle interactions in the
Earth's upper atmosphere.
He spent quite a bit of time flying scientific
balloons from Palestine, Texas (enough time that he met and married a
native of that town).
me more about Dr. Thompson's thesis research!
In 1972, with the launch of the SAS-2
gamma-ray telescope, he began studying cosmic sources of high-energy
gamma rays, especially diffuse Galactic radiation
and gamma-ray pulsars. In
the mid-1970s, the Goddard Gamma Ray Astrophysics Branch joined with
Stanford University, the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrrestrial
Physics, and Grumman Aerospace Corporation to start a new telescope,
the Energetic Gamma Ray Experiment Telescope (EGRET).
The Compton Gamma Ray
Observatory with EGRET on-board
When EGRET on the Compton Gamma Ray
Observatory (CGRO) was launched by the Space Shuttle Atlantis on
5, 1991, his emphasis shifted back to astrophysics. He has been
in high-energy studies of pulsars, blazars, gamma-ray bursts,
radiation, and unidentified sources. Gamma-ray astrophysics is a fairly
new subject, and huge advances in the current technology enable
discoveries of gamma-ray phenomena (one of the biggest mysteries in
current astrophysics, for example, are the elusive gamma-ray
bursts, discovered in the late 1970s). He comments, "Gamma-ray
astrophysics, in addition to being exciting because gamma rays come
the most violent processes in the Universe,
has also been a wonderful
opportunity to make the first steps in a field that had been
unexplored. A pioneering adventure like this is not available
A gamma ray view of the sky [EGRET]
Looking ahead to the future, he is working with the GLAST
team, a collaboration of particle physicists and astrophysicists
building the next generation high-energy gamma ray telescope. He is the
managing scientist for one subsystem of the GLAST Large Area Telescope.
The Goddard Scientific Colloquium
The Goddard Scientific Colloquium takes place every Friday at 3:30 in
large auditorium at the Center. When asked to describe in more detail
work he does on the Goddard scientific colloquium panel, David says:
"Goddard's Scientific Colloquium series is for me one of the
high spots of
life at Goddard. When Jaylee Mead started the series 35 years ago, she
persuaded Goddard management to give the Colloquium committee almost
complete independence to invite speakers. Over the years, the committee
(made up of 12 scientists representing the diverse earth and space
fields at Goddard) has chosen to emphasize broad scientific topics that
think will have wide interest at Goddard. Twice a year, the members of
the committee nominate candidate speakers for the series. We then vote,
using a system of weighted voting (by level of interest - 20 votes for
choice down to 1 vote for last, for example) Those candidates who
enough support are then put on our invitation list. The members of the
committee invite the speakers in any way they can. As chair, I
the schedule and work with our colloquium secretary to make sure all
Goddard paperwork for invitational travel gets done. I also prepare the
printed schedule and maintain the Colloquium Web site. Once
while I have to deal with complaints about the coffee, the auditorium,
access to Goddard, or typographic errors on the flyers.
"Over the years, I have enjoyed hearing the wide variety of
having a chance to meet some speakers, particularly those I would not
encounter in my regular work. Some of the ones I remember best: James
("the Amazing") Randi, who spoke on the need for skepticism in science
and demonstrated it by fooling the audience with the sort of tricks
people like Uri Geller claim are real "psychic phenomena." William
Phillips, the Nobel laureate from NIST, who gave a great talk on
low temperature physics, complete with a whole series of
demonstrations. Louis Leakey and Donald Johanson, two of the classic
gave outstanding descriptions of the study of human origins. I also
remember a couple of disasters, like the talk by the editor of the
of Irreproducible Results, whose colleagues switched his slides on him
before he came and left him with very little to say. We have had over
1200 speakers in the series -- the stories are endless."
A "Typical" Day at the Office
What is a typical day at the office like? David says,"As most
scientists here will tell you, there is no "typical" day. We all tend
to do lots of things. Some days I spend the whole day focused on one of
them, and other days I jump from one thing to another every 15 minutes.
Here's a list of some of the things I do:
- Supervise some of the construction and testing for the part
of the GLAST observatory that we are building at Goddard.
- Help coordinate the parts of the GLAST work that we are
doing with the work being done by other groups around the
world. That often means reading and writing reports.
- Read and respond to e-mail. As part of several
international collaborations, I rely on e-mail to keep informed about
what these groups are doing and to tell them what I have been working
- Catch up on the latest scientific news, either in journals
or from various Web sites.
- Write up or prepare talks about results of ongoing
scientific projects, either for scientific journals, conference
presentations, or popular press.
- Work in the laboratory checking on progress in our part of
- Coordinate invited speakers for the Goddard Scientific
Colloquium, including publicity for their talks.
- Attend meetings (formal or informal) with scientific
- Ponder the future (aka daydreaming).
- Eat lunch (often at my desk while doing some of these other
[NOTE: GLAST launched on June 11, 2008.]
Dave enjoys public speaking and is a member of the Goddard
Speakers' Bureau. His available topics are "Viewing the Violent
Universe: The Compton Gamma Ray Observatory" and "A Guided Tour of the
Universe." In 1993, he contributed to The Learning Channel television
series, "A Practical Guide to the Universe."
Questions and Answers
Q: As a scientist, you must be in contact with
people from all over the world. What is the most unusual question or
comment you have ever gotten?
A: I certainly enjoyed a series of exchanges
I had with an amateur scientist/theologian. He had been studying the
Qu'ran and had found what he felt were references to some current
astrophysical topics - the origin and expansion of the universe, the interstellar medium,
and some aspects of stars. He
wanted to share his enthusiasm for a connection between science and
scripture. Not being a student of Islam, I couldn't help much with his
reading, but I agreed that he had a pretty good grasp of scientific
Q: What do you think is the most important
technological advance that has occurred in your lifetime?
A: The most important technological advance
is the whole family of developments that have revolutionized
communication - radio, television, computers, the Internet. The advent
of the information age has transformed life; even those who do not
travel physically are likely to be in touch with much of the world.
Q: What one question in science would you
like to see answered in your lifetime?
A: I can't resist one obvious Big Question --
is the Universe open or closed? What was pure speculation when I was
growing up may well be resolved in the next decade.
Q: Do you have a family? A dog? A fish? A
camel? Describe it!
A: Family is very important to me. My wife
grew up on a farm in Texas (her
father still raises Charolais cattle there) and is now a leader in
science for the Defense Department. Her office manages many of the DoD
sites like DefenseLink. She was a winner of a Federal Computer Week
Federal 100 award and was named Federal Librarian of the Year a couple
of years ago. I am extremely proud of this "country girl."
I have two daughters. One is in college; the other graduated
from the Savannah College of Art and Design and is now working in
Q: When you are not at work, what do you like
A: I am active in a local Baptist church,
where I teach an adult Sunday School class. Like many scientists (both
believers and nonbelievers) I recognize that science and faith are
different approaches to understanding the world. Many aspects of
belief, however, can benefit from the methods of analysis,
interpretation, and even skepticism that we use in science. I am
fortunate to have a Sunday School class that enjoys a spirited
discussion within the context of a strong faith commitment.
Q: Who was your favorite teacher in school?
What was this teacher like and how did he/she influence your life?
A: My favorite teacher was a high school
English teacher and debate coach
named Clyde Coon. He taught me that being able to communicate both in
and verbally would be extremely important no matter what I decided to
Q: If you weren't a scientist, what would you
A: If I were not a scientist, I would
probably be a teacher. Young people are the future, and they deserve
Publication Date: October, 1999