Janet Mattei

This is a transcript of the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast for October 26, 2010.

Hi, I'm Mike Simonsen of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO).

Today, October 26th, is my lovely wife’s birthday, and I’m dedicating this episode to her. Like many amateur astronomers, I’ve spent hundreds of nights over the years out under the stars or hunkered down at my computer instead of cuddling on the couch watching Dancing With the Stars or Survivor with my spouse. Not to mention the tens of thousands of dollars I’ve spent over the years on observatories, telescopes, equatorial mounts, eyepieces, filters, CCDs, software, computers and astronomy related travel. Even the house we live in was chosen in large part for its astronomically friendly dark skies.

Now, my job at the AAVSO requires me to travel to Boston every other month for a week or so, and our standard of living has suffered somewhat, because working for a non-profit is, well, not profitable. As if to add insult to injury, the AAVSO’s annual fall meeting is always around this time of year, and more often than not, over the past ten years, I’ve been away on the day of her birthday, sharing my interest in variable star science with my AAVSO friends, instead of celebrating with the most important person in my life. In fact this year, as you are hearing this podcast, Irene and I are spending her birthday in the car, driving to Boston for another fall meeting.

Yes, my wife is an incredible woman. She has not only survived losing her mother at a tender age and breast cancer, she has survived me, and my astronomical obsessions. I would not be the man I am today without her limitless patience, generosity, compassion and love. Whatever lasting contribution to science I leave behind will be in no small part because of the special woman I married.

The desire to contribute something to science is one of the main reasons people join the AAVSO. Long before “Citizen Science” became a fashionable catch phrase, the AAVSO was encouraging and teaching amateur astronomers how to observe and record observations of variable stars. And when I joined in 1998 the Director of the AAVSO was another very special lady I had the privilege of knowing, Janet Mattei.

Janet Mattei
Janet Mattei was born January 2, 1943, in Bodrum, Turkey. After graduating from high school she came to the United States to study at Brandeis University. She graduated in 1965 but still unsure about what she wanted to do with her life, she worked in a hospital for a year and a half, running its cardio-pulmonary laboratory.

In 1967 she returned to Turkey to teach physics and mathematics. Later, she quit teaching and began graduate studies in astronomy. It was during this time she heard about Dorrit Hoffleit's summer program on Nantucket at the Maria Mitchell Observatory.

The program at Maria Mitchell Observatory gave students an opportunity to do real research. Students would be given their own personal star to research and analyze. Then they would give a report on it at the annual meeting of the AAVSO the following October. Dorrit's decision to hire Janet as her assistant changed her life and the history of the AAVSO forever.

In 1969, the AAVSO had been invited by Dorrit to hold their annual fall meeting on Nantucket. Dorrit was away at a symposium in Virginia and had planned to get to Nantucket just before the AAVSO meeting started, but a sudden blanketing fog prevented her from making it to the meeting on time. Dorrit called the observatory when she knew she wasn’t going to make the opening and asked Janet to take charge until she could get there. As it turned out, Dorrit didn’t arrive until just after the final banquet as everyone was hurrying off to Loines observatory to take advantage of the sudden break in the clouds.

The Director
When Margaret Mayal, the AAVSO Director at that time was looking for an assistant a couple years later it was partly due to Dorrit’s recommendation and Janet’s performance at that meeting that Janet landed the job as assistant to the Director of the AAVSO. Less than a year later, Margaret decided to retire as Director, and though there were several qualified candidates, Janet was elected unanimously by the Council in 1973 to become the next Director of the AAVSO. A job she would hold for the next 30 years.

Janet took charge at an exciting time, as technology was beginning to advance at a breathtaking pace. In the late 70’s space-born telescopes became an important tool in astronomers’ toolbox, and triggering them to observe targets of opportunity was up to the dedicated observers on the ground monitoring cataclysmic variables and other interesting stars. Now space telescopes like Swift alert amateurs on the ground of Gamma-Ray Bursts so they can do follow-up observations of the GRB afterglows.

In the 80’s Janet decided to digitize all of the AAVSO's data, dating back to before the organization's founding in 1911. In 1986 after decades of outgrowing small rented offices, she established AAVSO’s first permanent headquarters building on Birch Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

By the turn of the century the AAVSO had grown exponentially in its online presence and prestige in the world of variable star science under Janet’s leadership, but none of it ever went to her head. As leader of the largest variable star organization in the world, the author of over 175 peer-reviewed papers on pulsating and cataclysmic variables and the recipient of dozens of prestigious awards, Janet Mattei was not at all what I expected when I first met her in Hyannis in 1999.

Meeting the Legend
There was supposed to be an outdoor courtyard cookout the night before the meeting took place, a time for all the attendees to meet and greet, but the weather was a little on the cold and wet side so we were forced indoors to one of the hotel meeting rooms. My friend and mentor, Gene Hanson, introduced Irene and I to several of the guests and then we took our seats at one of the tables in the corner.

At the door to the meeting room a group of about a dozen people all suddenly tried to squeeze through at once. At the center of the commotion was a short, brown haired, be-spectacled ball of sunshine and energy directing staff, answering questions from the caterer, smiling and laughing with the cadre of members as they made their way across the room. The center of attention would often disappear behind the others due to her height, but there was no question about her stature.

She made her way around the room, stopping at each table, hugging and shaking hands. She seemed to know everyone’s name, and would ask about their families and pets like an aunt who had just visited a month ago. When she made it to our table Gene introduced Irene and I as newcomers and Janet immediately sat down at our table.

She stayed and talked with us for over a half an hour, asking questions and getting to know all about this new guy from Michigan and his wife. She was warm, approachable, smart and funny. When she finally excused herself from our table Gene turned to me and said, “Do you know how special that was? The Director just sat down and chatted with you for a half an hour!”

All I knew at that point was that I would walk through fire for that woman. Hearing her words and seeing her smile in my mind was warm comfort on many a cold night at the telescope.

I realized later how special that evening was when I finally understood how hard Janet Mattei worked every day of her life, practically single-handedly breathing life into an ever growing organization, nurturing it and its members like a gardener tending her garden. The organization bloomed full into the Internet age with a sophisticated website, online tools to submit and analyze data, real-time email alerts of stellar activity, observing campaigns in support of space telescopes, the development of the High Energy Network to follow GRB afterglows and the advancement of amateur observing capabilities with CCDs.

The Future
She led us all into the 21st century and pointed the way to the future, even as she lay in the hospital fighting leukemia.

"The AAVSO is made up of remarkable, dedicated amateur astronomers," Janet said. "The camaraderie is truly special and unique. I feel that the future holds even more exciting things as more observers extend their observations to fainter targets with CCDs, as more variables are discovered by professional all sky surveys, and as more data become available via the Internet. It's easy to get distracted in view of so many options that we have today. The challenge is to think big, to have a vision, and to move toward that vision."

Her vision wasn’t just about the science. She knew that the people who participate in science are truly our most valuable resource.

Janet lost her battle with leukemia in 2004, but she won the hearts and minds of hundreds of amateur and professional astronomers everywhere in her thirty years of service to the scientific community. Soon I will be back in Cambridge, among my AAVSO friends, and Janet will be there with us as we celebrate her vision and cherish her inspiration. From all of us to you, thank you, Janet.

To my wife on her special day, thank you for your understanding and generosity.

And from me to you, thank you until the next time.


Pebble Johnson said...

She touched so many of our lives. I can still hear telling me that "Pebble, you can do it, believe in yourself"...over a Pina colado on Waikiki Beach...I miss her so much!

Anonymous said...

That was very sweet of what you said of Irene. Happy Birthday Irene!!

Love Nicole