Meet: Greg Neumann
Research Scientist/Lead Altimetry Analyst
Massachusetts Institute of Technology &
Goddard Space Flight Center
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
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.
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.