All my life—or at least from the time I knew what astronomy was—I wanted to be an astronomer. But being an astronomer has not turned out to involve doing the kinds of things I imagined when I decided to go to graduate school 25 years ago.

I went to Carleton College, one of the best of the small midwestern liberal arts schools. Influenced by the commitment of my professors to teaching, I planned to become a teacher at a school like Carleton. A physics professor, however, convinced both me and my soon-to-be husband (also a future astronomer) that we were selecting too safe a path and that we could never know what we could achieve unless, when given a choice between two alternatives, we chose the harder one.

And so we went to the University of California’s Berkeley campus at a time of enormous political upheaval. We remained curiously distant...

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