Behind the Lens: An Interview with Dr. Mike Liu

In anticipation of Keck Week’s Science Meeting, we spent some time with one of the presenters, Dr. Michael Liu to find out what it was like to be an astronomer.

What is it like to be “behind the lens” of the world-renowned W. M. Keck Observatory? 

The first time I had the opportunity to observe through the Keck Telescope was when I was a grad student at UC Berkley. Back then, the observatory and Keck I Telescope were both brand new!  As a “newbie,” it was one of the most exciting experiences I could have hoped for. I thought I would’ve had to wait many years for such an amazing opportunity. Adding to my excitement, we made an interesting discovery the first night!  And the feeling of being in the new facility fueled my enthusiasm.

To this day, I still get excited about observing. I never know what will happen. It’s always an adventure. I always try to remember that I’m observing things no one has ever seen before.

What is the most extraordinary thing you’ve observed through telescope?

I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that before. Just thinking off the top of my head, I would have to say one of the most extraordinary things I observed was when we found a cold, pale star in 2011. It was 200 degrees Fahrenheit, about the temperature of a cup of coffee. What made it so extraordinary was that a physical aspect of the star could be related to something as common to most people as hot coffee. Most discoveries we encounter are usually not something that we can make a correlation to in our everyday life. For example, discoveries are usually so unimaginably enormous or hot that it’s difficult to really grasp their size or temperature.

How do you hope to see the Keck Observatory advance in the future?

New instrument development is something I am looking forward to – particularly Keck’s Next Generation Adaptive Optics. NGAO is a new capability that will gather sharp images of a higher degree than what we can currently obtain. The story of astronomy is driven by telescopes and actually building new telescopes is rare. However, telescopes can be reinvented every decade or so with new technology, similar to the advancement of cameras. The development of new [instrument] technology is very important because science moves quickly. 

What is your favorite aspect of being an astronomer?

Discovery! Astronomers have predictions and theories, but we don’t really know if they’re true until we observe them and prove them right or wrong. Discovering the answer to those predications and theories – essentially answering questions about our universe – is a large part of what drives me to do what I do. And living in Hawaii is also a great perk!

How can the study of extra solar planets unlock secrets for us to understand our place in the universe?

The big question is: ‘When you look at other stars, what types of planets do they have around them and how often do they form and survive? Studying how often stars have Jupiter-size planets: Where they are located? What is the typical difference from stars, and how do they affect material around stars?’ [These answers] will better enable us to understand how our solar system was put together 5 billion years ago.

Recently, you stated that it is important that extra solar planets are studied in order to better understand our place in the universe. Can you expound on the importance that we further understand our place in the universe? 

Humanity has always wanted to know why we’re here. As astronomers, we’re right at the forefront of that question. I really enjoy the connection with people interested in what I do.

What are the most essential elements of your job?

A sense of curiosity, the desire to know why things are the way they are, wonder why things work the way they work and a need to know how to make them work better. Furthermore, you have to be open to new ideas. There are a lot of astronomers in this world with different theories. Some good. Some bad. You may often have the wrong idea yourself and if you are open to new ideas, you will change the way you think and how you do things. Of course, dedication and hard work are paramount to being a successful astronomer.

Can you expound on the importance the Keck Observatory play in astronomy on a daily basis?

The have played a fundamental role in discovery for 20 years in every area of astronomy including how stars are formed – which changed the way we view how the Milky Way came together – and the fate of the universe. The telescopes have changed our view of the universe and how we know where we are in it.

When did you know you wanted to be an astronomer, what inspired you to do this?

It was really a process. As a child, I was interested in stars, space, and things of the like, but I guess I sort of forgot about those interests as I got older. In college, I was interested in many things. When I went to my advisor to fill out my schedule my first semester, he suggested that I take an intro to astronomy class to give me the extra hours I needed. I loved the class and it basically reawakened something that I had been interested in since I was a child. On the last day of class, the teacher offered me a research job. That set me on a path to pursue astronomy as my career. 

Where did you earn your degrees?

I went to grad school at UC Berkley and received my post doctorate from the University of Hawaii, where I was able to continue observing at the Keck Observatory. Now that I think about it, in March, I’ll be celebrating the 20-year anniversary of my first observation at Keck.

Where are you originally from?

I’m originally from the DC suburbs and I steadily moved westward from there.

What do you do in your spare time?

I spend time with my wife and our 2 year old, who is a great source of joy. My family and I try to spend a lot of time taking advantage of the many outdoor activities Hawaii has to offer. We particularly enjoy the beautiful hiking trails. I also enjoy basketball.

If you couldn’t be an astronomer, what would you be and why?

No one has ever asked me that before either. I would probably be some other type of scientist!

Any advice for aspiring astronomers?

The internet is an amazing tool for aspiring astronomers. They can be informed effortlessly and are essentially closer to things as they happen. Make the most of the unbelievably easy access you have to astronomy these days. 

Any last thoughts that you would like to add?

Yes, it is worth remembering that the Keck telescopes are the culmination and result of many people’s dreams who came before us: those astronomers and engineers who thought to build it in the first place and the contributors who have had the dedication to see it through financially.

Check out this great TEDx talk!