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Meet: Jim Bell

Astronomer, Planetary Science
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

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Who I Am

I am an astronomer and my specialty is planetary science, or the study of the solar system. I do research on planets, moons, asteroids and comets, using images and other data from telescopes and NASA spacecraft missions. My specialty is Mars and I spend a lot of time wondering what the surface is like, what it's made of, and why it appears that Mars may have been more "Earth-like" in the distant past. What happened to all the water that used to be on Mars? Was it a planet like Earth where life could have flourished at one time? And what knowledge do we need to obtain about Mars before humans will go there in the next century?

My Journey

It seems like I've always been looking up!

I remember when I was around 13 years old I took my first look through a real astronomical telescope. It was incredible--the universe never seemed to end! Right around the same time, Carl Sagan's famous "Cosmos" television series was running and these events inspired me to earn money to buy a telescope of my own. When I finally got it, it opened my eyes to the vastness of space and the relationships between the Sun, Earth, Moon and the other planets. I still have that telescope (an eight-inch from Meade Instruments), and occasionally I dust it off and take it outside and share the beauty of the night sky with my own kids.

My parents were incredibly supportive of my interests in astronomy. I'd drag them outside in mid-winter to see some comet or planet or galaxy and they'd nod and smile, not quite knowing what to think of my offbeat hobby, but encouraging me nonetheless. And like many scientists in my generation, I think Carl Sagan was a role model and mentor. His "Cosmos" TV series brought the solar system into America's living rooms and inspired many people to wonder about the origin of life and our place in the universe. It was a great thrill to be able to work with him here at Cornell in the years just prior to his death.

Likes/Dislikes About Career

The best thing about my job is getting a great front row seat to the exploration of the solar system. Humans have learned so much about our universe in the past 30 years by using new telescopes, space missions and incredibly fast computers. And because of technology like the Web, many many people besides professional scientists are exploring right alongside. Doing interesting, cutting-edge work is the fun part. The not-so-fun part is that to do that work often requires hours and hours of tedious analysis in front of a computer screen, or days to weeks away from my home and family, on business travel at conferences or collecting/analyzing data at the telescope or at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Personal Information

I am married to a beautiful astronomer who also studies the solar system, except she mostly concentrates on atmospheres and rings, while I like to get into the rocks and dirt. We make a great pair. We have two kids, ages 7 and 3, and we enjoy swimming, hiking, sledding, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and all-you-can-eat Chinese food buffets. My 7-year-old son once got to meet Bill Nye, and Bill said to him "Wow, I'm basically just an actor who gets to play a scientist on TV, but your dad is a REAL scientist! What do you think about that?" To which my son responded, with a groan, "Oh, that's just Dad's WORK."

Learn more from my Web chats
March 27, 1998


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