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Astrophysicist Dimitris Psaltis is now Professor of Physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology after many years of service at the University of Arizona. He went there to create a Center for Data-Intensive Astrophysics.
By Mia Kollia
Translated by Alexandros Theodoropoulos
In addition to being a truly great personality in his field, Dimitris Psaltis, is the most direct, clear and honest conversationalist and an excellent advisor for young and old people, actually for everyone who demands personal achievements and dreams for the future.
- What makes a scientist successful in your opinion Mr. Psaltis?
First of all, I will say that I believe that any person can become a scientist and advance science at a rate that even he himself would never believe. When new students come to work with me, I look for three characteristics that I think indicate a commitment to science.
The first and most important is curiosity. Scientists should be innately curious and constantly searching for answers. The questions of how, when and why something happens are 50% of the way a scientist has to go.
The second very important characteristic is perseverance. The reason is that most questions are either easy to answer or will never be answered. All scientists are faced with very difficult questions such as where did we come from, where will we end up as humanity, what happens at the center of black holes, is there life on other planets? We're not even close to finding good answers to these questions! But with this in mind, we try to break them down into small sub-questions and then, with great persistence, proceed step by step towards finding a solution.
The third, equally important, is luck. I have been in the field of research for over 30 years and I have met many people who have both curiosity and perseverance, but either the path they chose, or the negative circumstances they found themselves in, or the people they worked with, were not the right ones to help them further develop their skills and knowledge. No scientist does anything by himself. The idea of a mad scientist, who investigates one day and explains the phenomenon the next, has never existed in the history of science. We all put in a little rock with everything we discover.
- What is the reason, according to your opinion, that makes us lose our curiosity at some point in our lives?
This sudden cessation of curiosity doesn’t happen when you are 30, 40 or 50 years old, but when you are 10, 15 and 20 years old. So it is related to the way of education we give to young people - and I am not talking only about Greece but about every part of the world. The main purpose of education is to develop curiosity, to make students ask more and more. The way we teach students and youngsters is not right. When they ask us a question, we immediately give an answer as if we have 100% knowledge, or we make them feel that the question they asked wasn’t correct or shouldn’t be asked. So if every question you ask is given an immediate and non-negotiable answer, after 10, 20 or 100 questions, you will stop asking. If you look into the past of some successful scientists or even people in the arts, you may find that at some point they stopped asking questions and decided to find the answers themselves.
- Why do you think education can ultimately be a barrier?
Because the way education is done is the easy way. My parents are both educators and in a way they are the ones who made me "sassy" because they always told me not to accept other people's opinions. I am now a teacher, teaching students in the field of research and I really see that it is much easier for someone to ask you a question and give them an answer with an implied authority, so as not to provoke more questions, than to give a half-answer - it's probably not easy to say you don't know.
- You said earlier that it's rare for scientists to reach a solution to something they may have been working on for years. How hard can this be for them?
Very hard! It's not just the fact that the questions we ask take years to be answered, but usually nine out of ten ideas we come up with, after maybe six months of working on each one, turn out to be completely wrong. So there is no reason to publish them, as we usually do, in scientific journals. But what makes you always want to move forward is dedication.
- How close can science get to luck?
Luck is all about the personal level. Luck can judge whether you will be that scientist who happened to be at the right place at the right time, with the right weapons and knowledge to see something right in front of your eyes and understand which path you will eventually take.
- Science and religion; what is your position on this debate?
I grew up in a churchgoing family. I have always been in contact with religion in our country and when I came abroad I tried to get in touch with other religions, to see what the differences are and how they see the world. What I realized was that all religions have two completely different parts. One piece has to do with how people should treat each other—something that has nothing to do with science. The second has to do with cosmogenesis and worldviews. There, I think that, as a scientist, I cannot have any contact with them, because they refer to times about which we know absolutely nothing about the world. So I always keep my ears open for the first part of religions and usually just smile when it comes to the second part.
- Was there any turning point in your life, a defining starting point?
There is more than one, and all of these highlights have more to do with people I interacted with and made me see things differently. When I was in university in the 80's, mostly in technology, I met some people who made me love astronomy. It wasn't so much the knowledge they imparted to me as it was their love for looking further that turned me on to this field.
The other big change for me came when I was a PhD fellow at Harvard University and I had just finished and was trying to figure out what to do next. Then I met a girl, who is now my wife and 20 years companion with two children, who also had the same concerns, so for a couple of years we worked together scientifically and wrote the articles that started our research on the black holes. My wife is from Istanbul, 200 km away from where I grew up, Macedonia, but she was the person I felt closest to, both humanly and scientifically.
- How difficult was it to work with your wife? Did you feel any competition?
We never had competition between us and we never had the misfortune of one being promoted and the other not. Things in life don't just go in one direction, there are steps forward and steps back, but one always knows how to help the other. The only thing is, we can't get away from talking about work. When it is about science, there is no problem, but many times you are forced to discuss the issues of people who are involved in science.
- Do you have time for other things outside of work?
When we come home, when the daughters are at home, we never talk about work. Family moments are strictly devoted to family. We also have common interests with my wife, the most important of which is traveling. Every year we take two or three long trips, without a computer with us. We have traveled all over the world and it is something that gives us great joy.
- When you were young, do you remember something that might have foreshadowed your future professionally?
I'm surprised you asked this question, because there's a strange story in our family. At one point we had gone out with my parents and when we came back, we found in front of the door of the house a small telescope and a letter that said "we give it to you..." - I don't remember what else exactly. We thought they had brought it home by mistake, so we asked around to see if anyone had expected this, but no one knew. So my parents let me keep it and I had it from elementary school through high school and used it all the time.
- You made a great discovery, have you thought about what you could do next?
This is something that has been on my mind for a year and a half. Two months ago we moved to Atlanta and my wife and I are working at a new university. The main reason was to start something new. I don't know what that will be yet, but I think after 20 years we have to do something else and see where it takes us.