Meet the Riekes: Researcher Spouses Speak on Science, Football and Shutterbug Scuffles

George and Marcia Rieke are UA Regents' Professors, world-renowned astronomers and a husband-and-wife research team.

Marcia Rieke’s research interests include infrared observations of the center of the Milky Way and other galaxies. In 2007, she was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, joining the ranks of former vice presidents and Supreme Court justices, Nobel and Academy Award winners and prominent executives. She has served as the deputy principal investigator on the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer for the Hubble Space Telescope.

George Rieke has been instrumental in the Spitzer Telescope, which dramatically expanded our understanding of the universe and its origin, and in the James Webb Space Telescope project. He was the principal investigator of the Multiband Imaging Photometer for the Spitzer Space Telescope and is the science team leader for the Mid-Infrared Instrument of the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2017 or 2018. He was elected a member to the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year.

Both Riekes talked with Lo Que Pasa about the big questions of the universe and why the road to a career in top-notch astronomy is paved with grit, wit and good-natured competition.  

You both studied physics in college. What made you choose that major?

GR: It's fun!

MR: It's what makes the universe work.

GR: My father was a physicist and my mother was an astronomer, so I like to say it was only natural I became an astrophysicist.

MR: My parents weren't scientists, but they took me to the public library and I got all the astronomy books when I was little.

Have you always been interested in the big questions about the universe?

GR: I don't think you start with the big questions about the universe. I think you start with fun stuff as a kid. I built telescopes, and I did some physics experiments for science fairs and things like that. I don't think the big questions occur to you till later.

MR: You're more involved with learning all the neat stuff that goes on and how things work and then later you realize, "Oh, we don't know everything and you can go out and pursue to find out some more things." But when I was little, my mother wouldn't let me build a telescope. I had to babysit and buy one.

Did you want to build one, too?

MR: Yes!

So why wouldn't your mother let you?

MR: Because it involved grit (to polish the lenses) and she didn't want dirt in the house. You buy the mirror blanks and you grind them into the right shape.

GR: It's really dirty work. It's like mud, you put this grit down and you get it wet. I was banished to the garage. So I set my stuff up there and built my telescope.

And why would you want to make a telescope rather than just buying one?

GR: It's fun! It's fun to mess with stuff.

MR: It's also a lot cheaper. But I wasn't given the choice, so I babysat and babysat and babysat and babysat and finally had enough money to buy a telescope. I grew up in Michigan, in a small town halfway up on the Lower Peninsula, in a very small town, so when the weather was good, the sky was very clear and dark. You could see quite a bit.

GR: I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and the sky was always lousy.

So there weren't too many opportunities to observe?

GR: No, but the building was fun and an end in itself.

Where did you go for your undergraduate and graduate studies?

GR: I went to Oberlin College and Harvard for graduate school

MR: I went to MIT for everything.

Where did the two of you meet?

MR: Here at the UA. He hired me as a postdoc in 1976. We got married in 1982. I had done some observing here at the UA as a graduate student, using his equipment, so he knew I didn't break stuff.

How long after that did you start dating?

GR: Oh, I don't know.

MR: It more or less just happened because we worked together for all that time.

GR: I must have been an assistant professor at the time. Believe it or not, I started here in 1970 as a postdoc. We have always worked on pretty much the same kind of questions.

What kinds of questions?

MR: Well, in the early days, we were very interested in galaxies called starburst galaxies. Their uniqueness had just been discovered. They are forming a lot of stars in their central regions. Those are now very commonly accepted things to know about but when we were first looking at them, George discovered that they were putting out this large amount of infrared radiation that didn't seem to have anything to do with stars and it was a bit mysterious for a while. It later turned out the infrared radiation did come from stars, but a whole collection of very new stars that people hadn't anticipated being there.

You both played key roles in pioneering infrared astronomy. What is infrared astronomy?

GR: People have been looking into the universe with visible light for centuries and, yes, there is neat stuff there, but it's a bit limiting. So the whole history of the last 50 years of astronomy is breaking out into the other spectral regions and seeing what the universe looks like there. And, lo and behold, it's not necessarily dominated by stars. There are all kinds of new things that pop up when you look in the other spectral regions.

MR: If you look at that standard picture in the astronomy textbooks of the electromagnetic spectrum, you see that the visible light part is that tiny little slice. We have finally gotten to look at all the rest and learned many different things. Infrared is particularly special in this regard because you can look at the cool part of the universe which is a good place to study planets outside our solar system. You can see through all the dust that lies along the line of sight to the galaxies so you can see more distant objects.

GR: If it wasn't for the sun and the light that scatters off the planets, they'd be invisible. But they'd still be glowing in the infrared, because of the intrinsic heat they give off. So people use infrared to image planets, because they stand out brighter relative to the star than they would in visible light.

How does infrared help extend our view into the distant universe?

MR: We know that there are things that are so far away that you have to use infrared to observe them. That's why the James Webb Telescope is an infrared telescope.

GR: The UA's Lunar and Planetary Lab played a huge role in getting infrared astronomy started, because Gerald Kuiper, the founder, used infrared to study planets. There was a flourishing of infrared astronomy on this campus, and the only other place where anything significant was going on with regard to infrared was Caltech. In those early days, mostly the 1960s, what the UA did was something really unique.

What do you like about working at the UA?

MR: There has been a good entrepreneurial spirit around here. One could be free to try things and start projects and so on.

GR: We have good facilities and very good support for astronomy and planetary research. Even with all the challenges we're facing, the University is trying very hard to keep that support going. There is a real commitment to this sort of science and there are lots of opportunities. We have a critical mass of people interested in this area, and we enjoy a lot of exchange and mutual support. It's an exciting place.

What are your responsibilities on the James Webb Space Telescope Project?

MR: We're the camera people. George does long wavelengths, I do short wavelengths.

How closely are you collaborating?

MR: We do some collaboration, but the launch is still years away unfortunately. Our teams will undoubtedly have some joint science programs when we go to observing.

GR: We definitively go to the same meetings. (Both laugh.)

Do you try to keep your research separate from your personal life?

MR: No, it's all one big schmear.

GR: What do you think we're talking about over dinner? Come on.

MR: We do sometimes go on vacation where we do completely other things. We both are into nature photography, and we pursue that wherever we happen to be.

GR: We have photo contests going, all the time. It never stops.

Do you sometimes engage in "intellectual squabbles"?

MR: Well, we sometimes disagree on scientific issues, but that's different. The photo contests are another matter. At Christmas time, we print calendars with our pictures on them as presents. And you can only put 12, maybe 24 pictures if you put two for each month. We have big fights about whose pictures go into the calendar and on which month.

GR: You see, the photo contests are serious. The science disagreements are frivolous. (Both laugh.)

What do you think is the secret to keeping your relationship going given the circumstances?

MR: I know what he's good at and he knows what I'm good at, and we just do our things. I'm the computer person. I do all the programming, setting up that stuff. George is the optics guru. When we used to take our equipment up to the 61-inch telescope on Mount Lemmon, he'd do one set of things, and I'd do another set of things, and we didn't even have to give each other directions, we just did it.

Your offices are on the same hallway. How does that influence your life?

MR: (Laughing) Transportation is easy. We come together to the same place.

GR: This is the "infamous" infrared group. The group is a little different from other research groups at the University. If you go up and down the hall you find our managers are here, and we don't have as many engineers, but they're all mixed in. We are a big family, and that spirit is very helpful to us because it creates a team that's working all in related projects.

MR: Another place where there is a big family debate is football.

GR: That's not even worth discussing!

MR: He's Green Bay Packers. And I'm Detroit Lions. Which until recently was a real burden.

Why is that?

MR: They're the only professional football team to have never won a game in a season one year. They were very bad. Very. Unbelievably. Bad.

GR: This year, those two are the only two unbeaten teams. So there are going to be very stiff relations in our household on Thanksgiving Day.

What are your predictions?

GR: (Laughing.) That's easy.

MR: His team will probably win, because they're the champions from last year. My team is nouveau riche at being good.

GR: I'm a little worried, actually.

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