Who am I?

A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. … take care that you first place him in his time… And take the most special care that you locate [him] in his place…

– Princess Irulan (Dune)

A human being is complex beyond the knowledge of any other individual. Identifying oneself is not a simple matter. Professionally, I am a scientist. But I am also a father, a husband, a son… a host of identities that are all valid all the time, but in a given context, some are more relevant than others.  To be brief, I offer the bio commonly used when I give public talks:

Stacy McGaugh is an astrophysicist and cosmologist who studies galaxies, dark matter, and theories of modified gravity. He is an expert on low surface brightness galaxies, a class of objects in which the stars are spread thin compared to bright galaxies like our own Milky Way. He demonstrated that these dim galaxies appear to be dark matter dominated, providing unique tests of theories of galaxy formation and modified gravity.

Professor McGaugh is currently the Chair of the Department of Astronomy at Case Western Reserve University and Director of the Warner and Swasey Observatory.  For fourteen years previous to joining the faculty at Case, he was a member of the faculty at the University of Maryland. Prior to that, he held postdoctoral research fellowships at Rutgers, the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge. McGaugh earned his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan after studying physics at MIT and Princeton.

Even identifying myself as a scientist is vague. One may read my cv or peruse my scientific publications, but these are specialized and will tell the non-specialist little more than that I’ve worked in lots of places and written lots of refereed publications. Even specialists will see different things, depending on their own specialty. To astronomers, I am probably best known for my work on low surface brightness galaxies. Cosmologists are more likely to have heard of me in the context of MOND. I find the reactions I get are strongly colored by these associations.

One rule of science, and logical reasoning in general: ad hominem attacks are irrelevant. One must analyze and criticize an idea or hypothesis on its own merits. Whether the person who advocates that position is a sinner or a saint is irrelevant to evaluating the idea.

At least, that’s the ideal. In practice, scientists are people. They care about their paradigms. If you point out problems, you must be a bad person.

I started my career in science in the 1980s as a physics student at MIT. Many compelling ideas emerged at that time. Grand Unified Theories, Supersymmetry, string theory, dark matter, Inflation, and even MOND were hypothesized (or matured) in those days. These ideas are with us still. Some have overstayed their welcome; others were never welcome. Whether any prove to be correct remains to be seen.

So, to answer the Princess Irulan, my time is now, but I started in the 80s. One’s time inevitably colors one’s perspective. I am now old enough to recognize this in my colleagues, whose horizon of expert knowledge often seems to correspond to the date of their Ph.D. I try to take a longer view of scientific history when I am able, but first one should acknowledge the limitation imposed by not being there in person.

As for place, my wave function is not easy to locate. That was already a long story in the previous millennium.