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Meet: Greg Neumann

Research Scientist/Lead Altimetry Analyst
Massachusetts Institute of Technology &
Goddard Space Flight Center

greg neumann photo

I've been a Research Scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, since 1996. The picture shows me during a long night of processing Clementine Laser Altimeter data when I was working at Johns Hopkins University from 1993-1996. I am currently at NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center, where I work with the Space Geodesy Branch as the lead altimetry analyst for the MOLA instrument aboard the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft. When the MOLA operations team receives telemetry from our laser altimeter, I transform it into a calibrated dataset, and then into topographic profiles. These profiles are merged with reflectivity and roughness data also collected by MOLA into a 3-D map of Mars. I will also work with laser altimetry data from the NEAR spacecraft when it reaches the asteroid Eros in 1999.


        B.A.    Mathematics, Reed College, 1969.
        B.S.    Industrial Engineering, University of Rhode Island CCE,
        M.S.    Geophysics/Tectonophysics, Brown University, 1991.
        Ph.D.   Geophysics/Tectonophysics, Brown University, 1993.
                Dissertation: Morphology of the Southern Mid-Atlantic Ridge

My Ph.D. is in Marine Geophysics, the study of the seafloor using gravity, magnetics, sonar, and other techniques. Before going to graduate school, I held a number of jobs in industry: computer programmer, lab technician, logger, machinist, mechanic. I love working with tools of the trades. No matter how abstract learning may seem, it always relates to objects in the real world, whose properties bring abstractions to life.

How did I get into planetary geophysics?

After several years doing mechanical stress analysis in the power industry, I became a geophysical engineer. We used electromagnetic induction in the earth driven by electric currents in the ionosphere to look for geothermal resources. A field trip to Iceland, where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge meets the Northern Lights, hooked me on doing geophysics.

I wanted to be a mathematician, with a minor in physics. Space science was in its infancy in my high school and college years. Plate tectonics was a high-falutin' theory, computers had 16 kilobytes of ferrite core memory, computer graphics was generated from punch cards, and nerds really carried slide rules. Mathematics seemed to be a better choice than aerospace during the Cold War, when rocketry was dominated by the nuclear missile program.

My parents taught history, but math and physics were popular during the Sputnik era, a time when we suddenly realized the importance of science education at all ages. I recall watching "Continental Classroom" at 6 am in my next-door neighbor's living room (my parents had not yet accepted TV as a fact of life). This was a great show. Educational Television was broadcast live, and wasn't very slick. For example, a torsion-balance experiment measuring Newton's gravitational constant, that had been started in the wee hours of the morning, was ruined by vibrations from rush-hour traffic. Sometimes equipment would break, so back to the blackboard for the rest of the show.

A physics student at Goucher College gave me her 3" telescope, kindling my interest in astronomy. The campus observatory's 6" refractor provided the first breathtaking view of the polar caps of Mars and its tiny satellites. I marveled at our own manmade satellites streaking across the evening sky, but during the 60's the Asian war and the turmoil of society took on greater importance than developing a career. I could not in good conscience work in any field whose main support was from the military.

The microprocessor revolution eventually drew me back into research. Being able to collect, interpret, and visualize data on a relatively cheap graphics computer, powered by a gasoline generator in some remote area, was immensely satisfying. Building and programming microcomputers led me back into school to focus on applied science.

In geophysics, collecting data is only half the fun. The goal of modern earth science is to understand, in a quantitative fashion, the processes that operate on all planets. As cheaper, faster computers appeared, geophysical problems yielded rapidly to numerical methods. Tectonophysics, the study of plate motions, became a rigorous science, and I was able to apply my computing skills to combine marine and satellite data.

Returning to Maryland, where I lived the first 17 years of my life, I continued to work on tectonophysics and satellite gravity data with David E. Smith and Maria T. Zuber, scientists with a MOLA instrument aboard the ill-fated Mars Observer mission. They had also signed up to work on the Clementine mission to the Moon, which at that time few people in the space community had taken seriously. This was the first civilian mission run by the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, better known for its "Star Wars" death ray technology than for its expertise in planetary science.

Clementine was run on a shoestring out of a warehouse in Alexandria, VA dubbed the "Batcave". A small, dedicated crew of scientists and engineers, willing to try anything on short notice, rewrote the rulebook. When Mars Observer didn't phone home, the Clementine lidar experiment became my introduction to the wonderful world of space geophysics. Its discoveries, like the South Pole-Aitken basin, a 12-km-deep pit on the backside of the Moon, half the size of the US, made a considerable impact on the world. It taught us that good science could be done by relatively cheap, practically "quick-and-dirty" methods. The success of this tiny mission spurred NASA to embark on the Discovery and Mars Exploration Programs.

While I'm chiefly working on outer space, I get a chance now and then to explore the planet we live on (and will continue to learn fundamentally new things about as we explore the rest of the solar system). I have been on two ocean cruises to the Southern Mid-Atlantic Ridge, an area that is a window into that part of the earth's interior known as the mantle, but which is seldom explored. Our southern hemisphere is mainly a "Waterworld", where people live on very young volcanic islands, isolated from the continents by thousands of kilometers of sea. The ocean floor is teeming with life forms powered by thermal and chemical fluxes from the mantle that may someday be found in remote parts of our solar system.

Tristan da Cunha is the remotest place on earth that I have ever visited. Tristan and its neighbors are about 2,000 miles from land. Its 296 inhabitants get mail by boat four times a year.

photo of volcano

On a recent field trip we sampled the nearby volcanic rocks to learn more about "hotspots" deep inside the earth.

Is this really a job?

Most of my days are spent visualizing recent planetary data. What I like about my job is the wonderful people I can bounce ideas off of every day. What I dislike is having to drive nearly an hour each way from my home to talk to them in person. Our technology is far more advanced than how we organize people to get to work. I "telecommute" over the Internet as much as I can, but much of my week is spent traveling in a car, where I don't talk to anyone.

To relax I like to generate computer pictures that represent a physical or mathematical concept. If I can, I like to make things out of wood, a much warmer and more durable medium.

Who were my mentors?

I couldn't begin to name all the dedicated teachers and professionals who have given me the benefit of their time and wisdom. But I would put my high school science and math teacher, Bliss Forbush Jr., at the top of the list, for nurturing and instructing me. Once an industrial chemist (who pronounced nuclear "nucular" just like Homer Simpson), he was always fascinated to hear what his students were working on many years later. My doctoral adviser, Don Forsyth, got me out to sea, and inspired me to finish my education by his excellence in teaching and research.


I have a loving family, and a sweet shaggy black poodle, who wait patiently for me to come home; my friends Morgan and Russell and Ben who are enthusiastic about science and love to hear about space. I wish I could spend more time with them.


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