A Chat with the Noisy Astronomer: Dr. Nicole Gugliucci

Photo courtesy of Nicole Gugliucci
Photo courtesy of Nicole Gugliucci

Astronomer, educator, maker-of-tiny-comets, and all around geek, Dr. Nicole Gugliucci has made it her mission to study and share the universe. Known as the “Noisy Astronomer,” she earned a doctorate studying radio astronomy, did a postdoc in science education, and is an assistant professor of physics in New Hampshire. She has also contributed writings over the years to Skepchick, School of Doubt, and SheThought (via Wayback Machine).

Daily Dragon (DD): Why are you known as the Noisy Astronomer?

Nicole Gugliucci (NG): Well, two fold. One is a pun on radio astronomy. Whenever there is a part of your signal that is “junk” we call that noise. A joke about “one astronomer’s noise being another astronomer’s data” became the title of my first blog, so @NoisyAstronomer fit for a Twitter handle.

Also, I’m originally from Staten Island, New York. I can be a bit…loud.

DD: What is radio astronomy?

NG: Radio astronomy is one way of looking at the universe! Instead of detecting the kind of light that we can see with our eyes, we study the universe using a lower energy type of light, the same light that we use to transmit cell phone signals, wi-fi, and, of course, radio stations. This gives us a view of things like molecular gas clouds, black holes, and the evolution of the early universe in a way that other telescopes cannot see.

DD: Your undergraduate degree is in physics, but your master’s and doctoral degrees are in astronomy. When did you know you wanted to make astronomy your field?

NG: I always liked science, but I really latched on to astronomy in my early teens. I saw the movie Contact in theatres in 1997, and I was so inspired by the depiction of Ellie Arroway, the radio astronomer searching for extraterrestrials in Carl Sagan’s story. Seeing that on the big screen was a big factor in why I’m here. As I went into high school, I was advised to take lots of physics by my science teachers, so I did. As an undergraduate, I almost stuck strictly to physics, but then I got a summer internship at a radio observatory in Massachusetts. Making images of jets moving near the speed of light near supermassive black holes, that had me hooked for good!

DD: Sometimes women feel unwelcome in STEM disciplines. Do you have any observations about that?

NG: Unfortunately, it is an issue. I consider myself fortunate in that I haven’t been personally targeted by direct harassment, but I’ve seen the pain that it causes. And, the longer I’ve stayed in the field, the more and more of the less direct, but still frustrating, sexism (not to mention, racism, ableism, heterosexism, etc.) I’ve seen. We’re still at a point where our myriad identities can influence how we’re able to move throughout the world and through careers in STEM, so I look for and seek to create those equitable spaces for people to do the fascinating work they love.

DD: Your Twitter feed (@NoisyAstronomer) says the three shows you’ve rewatched the most are Archer, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Why these three?

NG: Ha! So, when I’m preparing lecture notes, working with data, writing up problem solutions, or, I’ll admit, grading, I need something on in the background. But it can’t be something I’ve never seen or heard before, or else I’ll pay too much attention to it. So I cycle between Archer (because it’s so goddamn funny), Star Trek: TNG (because really I could just watch Picard take charge of a situation all day), and My Little Pony (because it is so hopeful and positive and because Discord is actually the pony version of Star Trek’s Q).

DD: In considering the intersection of science and science fiction, what do you see as the core area where they overlap?

NG: I am endlessly amazed at the diversity of thoughts and worlds that are possible to us through science fiction, and speculative fiction in general. Science fiction allows us to take what we know about the universe, or what we imagine we might one day know, and explore it freely, without the confines of reality. I love that. I love that science fiction inspires us to do science and I love that science inspires science fiction writers to create these worlds.

DD: Your website describes you as an “all around geek.” What forms of geekdom do you enjoy?

NG: One can geek out about JUST about anything. Science and astronomy are my first loves, and I also find myself geeking out about methods of science education and communication. But when I want to step away from work, I want to read or watch science fiction that makes me think, or at least lets me escape for a bit of adventurism. My first fandom was The X-Files, and I think you can count me as one of those young women who were inspired by Agent Scully on TV in the 90s.

DD: In 2014, you were a panelist on the Mythwits web series, which describes itself on YouTube as a geek talk show. What was that like?

NG: Oh, the Mythwits guys are super fun! I met them through Dragon Con, back when some friends held a Star Party for charity before Dragon Con a few years back. A Star Party features food, drinks, talks by astronomers, and, weather permitting, telescope views of the night sky. I remember at one point recording a nerdy trivia game of some sort with them, and I was just terrified that I would be bad at it and seen as “not a real nerd!” I think I did okay, though.

DD: You’re part of a Dragon Con panel on dark matter. What is it, and why does it interest you?

NG: As I tell my Astronomy 101 students, [shrugs shoulders and makes vague confused noise] we don’t know exactly what dark matter is, although there are some very smart theoretical astrophysicists that can talk about the weird particles it might be much better than I can. I’m particularly fascinated by dark matter from an observational standpoint. It’s taken decades of observations across multiple wavelengths and on different size scale in the universe to show us that there’s some kind of matter out there, even more of it than “normal” matter, and that its gravitational influence is holding our galaxies together. I think that’s so cool.

DD: Is there a scientist or group of scientists you particularly admire, and if so, why?

NG: I’ve made a lot of great friends who are scientists and science communicators, in part through events like Dragon Con. I get to hang out with amazingly smart ladies like Raychelle Burks, DN Lee, and Lali DeRosier every year, and the fact that we all come from different sciences but all have similar goals for communication, that’s just so enriching. So check them out because they are amazing. And then there’s Stephen Granade who directs the Science Track with whom I first bonded over My Little Pony, and my good friends Emily Finke and Ryan Consell who bring their anthropology and engineering expertise to panels here at the con AND to our daily text chats that keep me sane in this wild, wild world. It’s mushy and corny but it’s true.

DD: What’s next for you?

NG: I go back to New Hampshire and a full semester of classes! I’m currently a tenure-track professor of physics at a small college. I adore my students and my colleagues, and we have a lot of great teaching topics lined up, as well some STEM classes for an after-school program for high school students that will be taught by our undergrads. Plus I’m getting a little corner of the research lab set up to get undergrads doing radio astronomy. I honestly wish I had a time turner like Hermione!

DD: Thanks for your time.

NG: Thanks!

For more information about Nicole and her work, visit her website: https://noisyastronomer.com.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.