A brainstorming session with her colleagues at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, inspired Feryal Özel and helped her produce the paper on page 1115 of this issue. An astrophysicist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Özel was looking into the relationship between the mass and radius of neutron stars. The crucial data came from X-ray satellites monitoring a burst of X-rays from a neutron star. As a result, Özel was able to derive equations that should allow researchers to determine the mass and radius of neutron stars simultaneously. Özel tells Nature about the journey from her native Turkey to the farthest reaches of the Universe.
Why did you switch from particle physics to astrophysics early in your career?
In part because I realized that things in particle physics occur on timescales that just don’t match my personality. Hoping that whatever theory you work on will be tested in ten years if the right instruments are constructed was not something that went with my more impatient nature. But in astrophysics, there was a data boom. There were a lot of interesting physics questions that could be answered right then and there.
Are there more options now for young scientists than when you grew up in Turkey?
The past five or six years have seen the establishment of the first private universities. They now have some physics, engineering, even astrophysics positions. When students in Turkey ask me what they should do, I tell them that they can go far being in Turkey. But the academic environment that the United States provides still cannot be matched. If they want to be one of the top scientists, I think it’s necessary to have at least some exposure outside Turkey.
How confident are you about the equations?
You can’t imagine the number of e-mails I’ve already received about that. People are either fascinated by them or they’re asking ‘Why are you using these data?’ or ‘How can you trust that formula?’. It’s an amazing reaction and the paper isn’t even out yet. I’m perfectly confident in the method. But the data for sure can be improved.
Do you have concerns about astrophysics given recent funding trends at NASA?
I’m worried that NASA is in decline. The science funding is going down, future missions are being cut. There is a lot more emphasis on defence-related and engineering-related programmes than when I first got involved in the field. So there is this overall climate of worry that we’re not going to be able to generate anything as exciting in the coming decades because we’re simply not planning missions to get the data.
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Abstractions. Nature 441, xiii (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/7097xiiib