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Profile: Dr. David Thompson

Dr. David Thompson


Dave Thompson was in high school during the Sputnik era. While everyone 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 things work.

After doing undergraduate work in physics at Johns Hopkins University, he started grad school at the University of Maryland. As a teaching assistant, he met Steve Holt and Carl Fichtel, astrophysicists with Goddard's Astrophysics Science Division. They made high energy astrophysics interesting enough that Dave went to Goddard to do his thesis work.

Research Interests

Dave Thompson's thesis research used a balloon-borne gamma-ray telescope 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).

» Tell 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).

Compton Gamma Ray Observatory
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 April 5, 1991, his emphasis shifted back to astrophysics. He has been involved in high-energy studies of pulsars, blazars, gamma-ray bursts, diffuse radiation, and unidentified sources. Gamma-ray astrophysics is a fairly new subject, and huge advances in the current technology enable numerous 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 from 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 everywhere."

gamma ray view of the sky
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 the large auditorium at the Center. When asked to describe in more detail the 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 science fields at Goddard) has chosen to emphasize broad scientific topics that we 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 top choice down to 1 vote for last, for example) Those candidates who receive 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 coordinate the schedule and work with our colloquium secretary to make sure all the Goddard paperwork for invitational travel gets done. I also prepare the printed schedule and maintain the Colloquium Web site. Once in a while I have to deal with complaints about the coffee, the auditorium, the access to Goddard, or typographic errors on the flyers.

"Over the years, I have enjoyed hearing the wide variety of talks and 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 that 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 anthropologists, each gave outstanding descriptions of the study of human origins. I also remember a couple of disasters, like the talk by the editor of the Journal 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 on.
  • 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 GLAST.
  • Coordinate invited speakers for the Goddard Scientific Colloquium, including publicity for their talks.
  • Attend meetings (formal or informal) with scientific collaborators.
  • Ponder the future (aka daydreaming).
  • Eat lunch (often at my desk while doing some of these other things)."

[NOTE: GLAST launched on June 11, 2008.]

Other Interests

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 concepts.

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 information science for the Defense Department. Her office manages many of the DoD Web 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 Boulder, Colorado.

Q: When you are not at work, what do you like to do?

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 writing and verbally would be extremely important no matter what I decided to do. He was right.

Q: If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

A: If I were not a scientist, I would probably be a teacher. Young people are the future, and they deserve our attention.

Publication Date: October, 1999