Meet Craig Hardgrove
Dr. Craig Hardgrove
From Death Valley to Russia to Mars, this planetary scientist mixes music, gaming and space travel … literally
Can you imagine what music, Mars, videogames and geology might have in common? That’s easy - Dr. Craig Hardgrove. The makers of Halo recently purchased his synthesized 16-song soundtrack for an iPad videogame, the National Academy of Sciences has asked his newly formed Astrum Terra group to act as consultants for science fiction role-playing games, and on August 5th he’ll be busy at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA as part of an elite Science Team anxiously awaiting the ‘ping’ that will hopefully be emitted by NASA’s latest rover, Mars Science Laboratory, as it lands. And oh yes … lest we forget to mention … Craig is a Postdoc in the Geosciences Department at SBU studying Planetary Science.
“I was interested in dinosaurs as a little kid, but when I saw the fantastic pictures of Saturn and Jupiter taken by Voyager 1 and 2 I got really excited about studying our solar system and the planets. I read a lot of science fiction and talked to my Dad who said I should be an aerospace engineer. I was living in Georgia at the time, and they have this great program called the Hope Scholarship where if you maintain at least a 3.0 GPA, they pay for your tuition and your books, so that, and the reputation of Georgia Tech’s engineering program, were big incentives to stay in-state … so I started at Georgia Tech in Aerospace Engineering.
“I was convinced that engineering was where I was supposed to be by a lot of my peers and aerospace professors, but I wasn’t sure because all the students in the classes were interested in airplanes and rockets. I wasn’t really interested in the airplanes or rockets themselves; I was interested in the stuff they put on rockets that would tell you about the planets. I was in the aerospace program for about 3 years when I took a class in physics, just to fulfill a requirement, and instead of learning about weights and how to make things more efficient, we learned about the world and how things work. I thought, ‘This is what I went to college for,’ and so I switched to physics.”
After five years and a mere 160 credits, Craig graduated with a degree in Physics and went on to the University of Tennessee to do his graduate work in Planetary Science, housed in the Geology Department.
What brought you to Stony Brook?
“Some of the work I did during my PhD caught the attention of another researcher who saw my talk at a conference.” After realizing the work they did was similar, he studying alluvial fans with thermal imagery in Death Valley and she studying alluvial fans on Mars, they decided to work together on a paper for which Professor Deanne Rogers from Stony Brook was also an author. “I looked at temperature images mostly, but Deanne looked at spectral images, meaning she made determinations about the mineralogy and what the rocks were composed of, and I looked at how big or small and well cemented they were.” Craig thought their work was complementary so he contacted Professor Rogers and now works for her as a Postdoctoral Associate in the Geosciences Department.
What is an alluvial fan?
“Picture yourself standing in the middle of a valley between two large mountain ranges. Where the mountains meet the valley you get all the run-off of sediment that’s eroding from the mountains, and when the sediment from these nice, confined channels of the mountains meets the valley, it becomes completely unconfined and you get all this deposition of rock and sediment that is shaped like a paper fan. These record a bunch of different depositional events, which tell you something about the climate and the environment. So when you see one of the alluvial fans on Mars, it will tell you about the geologic history of the planet.”
Can you explain what work you are doing now?
“In the past researchers have primarily studied the thermal infrared properties of volcanic rocks because that’s mostly what we thought Mars was composed of, but the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars, which have been there for 7 years now, have found sedimentary rocks so we are starting to figure out what sedimentary rocks look like through thermal infrared imagery and spectra. The minerals on the surface of Mars absorb different wavelengths of thermal infrared light, and the minerals you can identify, by studying the reflected thermal infrared light, tell you about the sedimentary processes that happened to form that deposit. We are looking at evidence of water from 3 and a half billion years ago on Mars.”
What accomplishments are you most proud of since you arrived here?
“I did a part of my dissertation on neutron detectors for Mars rovers. Mars Science Laboratory, which basically is a rover the size of a Volkswagen Bug, is going to arrive on Mars on August 5th. One of the instruments on that rover is a neutron detector, which they use primarily to look for water. They have used neutron detectors on Mars missions in the past which have passively looked at how many neutrons were leaking out of the planetary surface, and whether or not the number of neutrons goes up or down tells you whether or not there is water buried underground, but this new instrument works differently. Instead of just waiting for the neutrons to come back, you shoot over a billion neutrons into the surface in a microsecond and you listen for what neutrons come back, and this not only tells you how much hydrogen is below the surface but how deep it is.
“On Mars we know there is chlorine, and geologically this is important because we know that on Earth when water in streams or lakes evaporates it can leave behind enrichments in chlorine. So if the rover ‘smelled’ chlorine, we could say maybe there was some ancient lake there …. When I was doing my PhD at UT I used a computer model to simulate the neutron signal for a bunch of different chemistries of the soil .… I simulated what the neutron count would be if you added really small amounts of chlorine and found that you’d be confused as to whether or not there was water or just chlorine, and so I wrote a paper and convinced the Science Team that this was something important that they needed to be aware of … and that’s how I became a collaborator on the mission.”
The approximately 300-member Science Team will be at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA when the rover first lands on Mars, and they proceed to spend the next few months of the mission eating, sleeping and breathing the day-to-day operations of the rover. “We live in Pasadena on Mars time and basically operate the rover when it is nighttime on Mars. You look at what data came back from the previous day, you plan and upload what the rover is going to do for the next day, and then you get to sleep. I recently went to Russia because the neutron detector is a Russian-contributed instrument, and they had a team meeting for just those who are working on the neutron detector, which is what I’ll be doing. We worked out a schedule for the operational 10-12 hour shifts.”
Anything else you would like to mention?
“I’ve also started a group that is based out of Stony Brook called Astrum Terra. There’s about six of us who are professional scientists who play videogames, and we make ourselves available to people who want to talk to us about incorporating real science into the games. This game I’m playing now called Mass Effect lets you explore other planets, and you read about them before you go exploring and I think to myself, ‘You probably shouldn’t say you have a big silver deposit on a big outer planet with a thin atmosphere.’ I think there are consultants in the movie industry so why shouldn’t there be consultants in the videogame industry? If you make things more realistic, you make them more immersive.
“I’ve started a blog (http://www.astrumterra.com/blog) and I’ve reached out to NASA’s Education Public Outreach office to try and come up with ways to reach a wider audience. And we are also partnered with the National Academy of Sciences through their Science and Entertainment Exchange which links moviemakers, TV shows and now videogame makers with scientists. Through this exchange we’ve connected with someone who is making a science fiction role-playing board game that’s similar to Dungeons and Dragons but in space. We are helping them with their space travel questions. It’s a lot of fun, and we’ve gotten a really positive response from them.”
Dare we ask … anything else?
“I recently sold my music to the people who make Halo. I started playing music on the piano, then I played trumpet in marching band, then I learned guitar, and I learned how to play the tin flute in Ireland. I eventually got into making digital music and I wound up remaking the 16-song soundtrack from a 1994 video game called Marathon, and I posted it on a forum for anyone who liked this game. When the iPad came out I contacted the person porting Marathon to iPad to try to incorporate my music into their new version of the game.” After researching copyright issues, Craig was eventually sent a recording contract from the makers of Marathon (who also created Halo), and they purchased his soundtrack, which can be accessed at themarathonmusic.com.
What advice might you have for other Postdoctoral Scholars?
“Figure out your own path; really sit down and think about what your own personal interests are and not what other people’s interests are for you. Try everything – learn about non-academic careers, because that’s a perspective you don’t really get as a PhD student. But of course, make sure you do your work and do what you’re supposed to for your PI.”
In the tradition of the French TV host Bernard Pivot who asked a series of questions at the end of every interview, we ask our Postdocs the following questions:
What is your favorite sound?
What is your favorite word or phrase?