My favorite rocket scientist


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Whenever someone protests, “I’m not a rocket scientist,” I think of my friend Jamie Rankin. Jamie is a researcher at Princeton University, and she showed me her lab this June. When I first met Jamie, she was testing instruments to be launched on NASA’s Parker Solar Probe. The spacecraft has approached closer to the sun than any of its predecessors. It took off in August 2018—fittingly, from my view, as I’d completed my PhD a few months earlier and met Jamie near the beginning of my PhD.

During my first term of Caltech courses, I noticed Jamie in one of my classes. She seemed sensible and approachable, so I invited her to check our answers against each other on homework assignments. Our homework checks evolved into studying together for qualifying exams—tests of basic physics knowledge, which serve as gateways to a PhD. The studying gave way to eating lunch together on weekends. After a quiet morning at my desk, I’d bring a sandwich to a shady patch of lawn in front of Caltech’s institute for chemical and biological research. (Pasadena lawns are suitable for eating on regardless of the season.) Jamie would regale me—as her token theorist friend—with tales of suiting up to use clean rooms; of puzzling out instrument breakages; and of working for the legendary Ed Stone, who’d headed NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).1

The Voyager probes were constructed at JPL during the 1970s. I’m guessing you’ve heard of Voyager, given how the project captured the public’s imagination. I heard about it on an educational audiotape when I was little. The probes sent us data about planets far out in our solar system. For instance, Voyager 2 was the first spacecraft to approach Neptune, as well as the first to approach four planets past Earth (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune). But the probes’ mission still hasn’t ended. In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first human-made object to enter interstellar space. Both spacecrafts continue to transmit data. They also carry Golden Records, disks that encode sounds from Earth—a greeting to any intelligent aliens who find the probes.

Jamie published the first PhD thesis about data collected by Voyager. She now serves as Deputy Project Scientist for Voyager, despite her early-career status. The news didn’t surprise me much; I’d known for years how dependable and diligent she is.

A theorist intrudes on Jamie’s Princeton lab

As much as I appreciated those qualities in Jamie, though, what struck me more was her good-heartedness. In college, I found fellow undergrads to be interested and interesting, energetic and caring, open to deep conversations and self-evaluation—what one might expect of Dartmouth. At Caltech, I found grad students to be candid, generous, and open-hearted. Would you have expected as much from the tech school’s tech school—the distilled essence of the purification of concentrated Science? I didn’t. But I appreciated what I found, and Jamie epitomized it.

The back of the lab coat I borrowed

Jamie moved to Princeton after graduating. I’d moved to Harvard, and then I moved to NIST. We fell out of touch; the pandemic prevented her from attending my wedding, and we spoke maybe once a year. But, this June, I visited Princeton for the annual workshop of the Institute for Robust Quantum Simulation. We didn’t eat sandwiches on a lawn, but we ate dinner together, and she showed me around the lab she’d built. (I never did suit up for a clean-room tour at Caltech.)

In many ways, Jamie Rankin remains my favorite rocket scientist.

1Ed passed away between the drafting and publishing of this post. He oversaw my PhD class’s first-year seminar course. Each week, one faculty member would present to us about their research over pizza. Ed had landed the best teaching gig, I thought: continual learning about diverse, cutting-edge physics. So I associate Ed with intellectual breadth, curiosity, and the scent of baked cheese.