PSU prof reaches for the stars
Inside Don Schneider's office, past the tiny Star Trek figurines, beyond the desk overflowing with papers, is a dog-eared textbook. It sits next to dozens of astrophysics books, some containing the secrets of the universe.
It is evident that this copy of "Calculus with Analytical Geometry" has been studied, caressed and carried around.
Nearly four decades ago, the book was given to Schneider as a Christmas gift. Now that may seem odd—after all, how many youngsters dream of getting an advanced math textbook for Christmas? But then there's a lot about the Penn State distinguished professor of astronomy and astrophysics that is rare and complex, yet down to earth.
When he was growing up in south central Nebraska, Schneider's playground was a farm. He gathered eggs and hoisted hay bales near a town that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, has an area of one-tenth of a square mile. Math, science and astronomy were his escapes from the rigors of farm life.
After the 16-year-old Don Schneider excitedly ripped the paper off that textbook in 1971, he couldn't put it down. He spent every day of his Christmas break poring through it, cover to cover, in the tiny room he shared with his brother.
Early on, Schneider, now 54, had a gift for numbers. Whether Isaac Newton's law of gravity, the distance from Earth to the moon, or the string of consecutive home-game football sellouts for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Schneider has always been fascinated with numbers.
He's one of seven children raised on an 800-acre farm that each year would be planted to corn and wheat. In the way that most people can rattle off their birth date, he can tell you how many miles there are in a light year (26 trillion, what's your next question?). By the time he was in high school, he had measured the weight of Jupiter—using a penny—a feat that earned him $4,000 in scholarship money.
Today, he is one of the world's most cited, most often published, and most respected astrophysicists.
The ruddy-faced professor with salt-and-pepper hair has two sons with his wife, Jet. He's been teaching at Penn State for 15 years. He's had stops in Lincoln, Neb., Los Angeles, and Princeton, N.J., before he ended up pretty much where he started—in the middle of farm country. He just happens to be in a different time zone, 1,200 miles away from his rural Nebraska roots.
Schneider's numbers really add up to 105,811. That's how many quasars he has successfully mapped, computed and catalogued as part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.
He explained that quasars—from the term quasi-stellar—are luminous black holes that are 100 million to a billion times the mass of our sun, putting the largest ones at the size of 1 percent of our galaxy. They are what Schneider has spent most of his adult life staring at, mapping out, and computing.
His eyes and mind have traveled billions of light years to hunt quasars, active galaxies that are so distant that the entire galaxy appears as a single point of light.
In Schneider's words, he's not just looking at things in the sky; he considers himself a time traveler.
But you'd never know that he spends most of his time with his head in—well, actually pretty much way past—
He's humble, as are his roots.
Life on the farm
Born on a farm near Heartwell, Neb., a town with a population of under 100, he was the oldest of the seven
brothers and sisters. It was a working farm where Schneider was expected to pull his weight.
"It was a tough life, yes," he said.
It was also obvious that Schneider had a profound intellectual gift at an early age, his mother, Eileen Boller, said
in a telephone interview from her home in Hastings, Neb.
Though he started walking at 9 months, Schneider didn't begin speaking at a normal age for a toddler.
"We were quite concerned and our doctor suggested maybe we take him to a specialist because he wasn't
speaking," Boller said.
But one day when the boy was 3, his grandmother was showing him a picture book with words. Suddenly, Schneider—to the amazement of his family—began reading it.
"It was kind of odd, but we had a lot of books in our home and we didn't know he was reading them until he
was three-and-a-half, and then he started speaking normally," Boller said.
The precocious lad was advanced well beyond his classmates when he packed off to kindergarten in Heartwell, a town so small its school went only through the sixth grade when Schneider was young. It's so small now that it no longer even has an elementary school. At the time of the last census in 2000, its population numbered 80.
Growing up, after a hard day's work on the farm, Schneider would retreat into the comforts—and excitement—of
At first, he wanted to be an astronomer; that's one of his earliest childhood memories.
Then, he dreamed of being an archaeologist. Dinosaurs fascinated him as a second grader.
Hundreds of plastic dinosaurs roamed the Schneider home as he learned as much as he could about the ancient creatures.
And when he learned about atoms in fifth grade, he decided that he wanted to be a nuclear physicist. Between chores, he would learn as much about atomic structure as he could.
When the Cold War heated up, so did Schneider's ambitions. As NASA launched the six Mercury missions from 1961 to 1963, Schneider's dreams also took off.
Same thing when the Gemini missions—the middle step in between Mercury and Apollo—were launched. The first one was March 23, 1965, the last—Gemini 12—on Nov. 11, 1966.
"But then in sixth grade, I decided it was time to make a career choice," Schneider said. "So in sixth grade I decided I wanted to be an astronomer."
He would awaken at 6 a.m., to watch the countdown and dream about the astronauts traveling into the heavens.
People like John Glenn and Alan Shepard were his idols.
He started cutting newspaper clippings out of the Omaha World-Herald, Nebraska's only statewide newspaper.
"Finally, he settled on astronomy and never looked back," Boller said.
And then came the Apollo XI landing on the moon.
"Yes, I remember July 20, 1969, very well," Schneider said. "And the impact it had. When you're growing up,
whatever the environment is, that's your perception of the world. And this was tremendously exciting. And it sort of gave me the basic optimistic view of what we could do. It seemed impossible at the time but we did it."
At about the same time, Schneider's small day-to-day world in Nebraska's heartland was expanding.
'Enormous' Minden: pop. 3,000
Minden, Neb.—population, nearly 3,000—is 10 miles southwest of the farm where Schneider grew up. As far as
he was concerned, it might as well have been on a different planet.
"That was the big city," Schneider said. "Going to Minden was an enormous event. When we would go shop-
ping in Minden—oh, wow, that was a treat."
When Schneider went to school in Heartwell, he was in a classroom that housed not only the nine students in his
grade but the students in the other grades as well. One teacher also taught all the grades. When one grade was
having class, the rest of the students were expected to study. It was a situation that he said helped him learn how
to work independently.
"You got used to a lot of distractions because at the table you had to be doing your homework while there was
a class going on," he said.
Heartwell didn't have a junior high or high school. So, beginning in 1967, when he was in seventh grade, he was
bused to Minden. "I went from having nine people in my class to about a hundred people. That was just a shock," he said.
One penny = $4,000
Schneider got serious about astronomy when he was in ninth grade. Christmas and birthday gifts were astronomy
magazines and—one year—a telescope.
The first time he glanced through the telescope, he found the moon. Then he found each of the planets. He
would spend many nights looking through his telescope, but soon the novelty wore off. Schneider was bored.
For fun, he would make up problems. "How far away Mars is is a function of time. How bright is it? That's what
I would do. Doesn't sound very exciting to you, I suspect, but I passed many hours at my desk just thinking
up problems that I knew were solved, but I said, 'Is there a way that I can express this?' "
During his senior year, Schneider's physics teacher mentioned a science research contest sponsored by
Westinghouse. The deadline to enter the national competition was in 30 days.
"I submitted a measurement of the relative masses of Jupiter and the Earth using my telescope," Schneider said. "I determined how many times heavier Jupiter was than the Earth."
But unlike many of the students who entered the contest—many of whom spent more than a year preparing for
it by working out of sophisticated laboratories in big-city classrooms—Schneider didn't have a lab that would allow him to easily calculate the acceleration induced by the Earth's gravitational field.
So he dug into his pocket, grabbed a penny – and then his little brother.
As Schneider held a stopwatch, his brother held the copper coin over the stairwell banister in their farm house—and let go. And let go. And let go. And let go.
Schneider then averaged the amount of time it took the penny to hit the floor.
Using that number and Newton's Law of Gravity, he submitted his findings to the contest. His estimate: Jupiter
is 389 times heavier than Earth. That proved to be very close to the precise answer of 318.
He was named one of 40 finalists, and flown to Washington, D.C., to talk about his submission. At 18, he
was making his first flight in a commercial plane.
Schneider earned ninth place—and a $4,000 prize, which "was an enormous amount of money in those days,
and it certainly helped me a great deal with my education."
"It was really pretty spectacular because it was in all the papers," he said. "I didn't hear it, but the 'Today' show
even talked about me coming from Nebraska. Apparently they had a number of people from New York in the studio interviewing and they said, 'Oh there's this one kid from a farm in Nebraska.' "
From a farm in Nebraska, he went to a university in Nebraska.
He's a Cornhusker
As Schneider weighed his college options, he narrowed his choices to two. One was the California Institute of
Technology, which ran the Palomar Observatory, "the greatest observatory in the world at that time." The other
was the University of Nebraska.
While Cal Tech offered the 18-year-old a generous scholarship, he opted to stay close to home and become a
Cornhusker. He traveled 129 minutes, mostly on I-80, to his new home in Lincoln.
It's been a while since Schneider graduated from Nebraska—33 years, to be exact—but according to his
alma mater's Web site, he's a "Success Story." Schneider returns the love; he even has a stuffed Lil' Red doll, the
school's mascot, on top of a bookshelf bulging with physics books.
A bio on Nebraska's College of Arts and Sciences' Web site is headlined "Alumnus takes research to the
extremes." It boasts that Schneider "is proud to fly the Huskers' scarlet and cream colors in the midst of Nittany
While Schneider joked that perhaps it wasn't a "Success Story" but a "Failure List," he said it was satisfying to be recognized by his alma mater.
"I hope that young Nebraskans will be inspired by what I've done and what other people on that list have done to
go and have an impact," Schneider said.
Schneider graduated in three years, earning a 4.0 grade point average on a heavy course load. He decided to
become an astronomical observer as opposed to a theorist.
But he didn't spend all of his time at the university studying. He delighted in following the Cornhusker foot-
ball team—and he still does today.
He knows his Cornhusker football almost as well as his astrophysics. His encyclopedic memory can name every-
thing and everyone from Nebraska's three Heisman Trophy winners—Johnny Rodgers, Mike Rozier and Eric
Crouch—to its number of consecutive minimum nine-vic tory seasons: 33 from 1969 to 2001.
Reporter: How many games did Coach Tom Osborne win between 1973 and 1998?
Schneider: "You mean total? Two-fifty-five. Two-fifty- five, 49 and three if you want the record."
Reporter: Which milestone did Nebraska reach this fall for consecutive sellouts in Memorial Stadium?
Schneider: "Three hundred."
Reporter: How many national championships has Nebraska won?
Schneider: "Well I assume by one or the other, five— 1970, 1971, 1994, 1995 and 1997."
Football aside, it was at Cal Tech—where he did his doctoral work and where he really dug into numbers—that
Schneider said he learned exactly what he was destined for.
Meets his mentor Jim Gunn remembers Don Schneider well. They met when Schneider arrived at Cal Tech in fall 1976, where Gunn was then teaching and conducting research, and later, they worked together at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. They are still friends; Gunn is still Schneider's mentor.
But at first, Schneider was just another young student working on his Ph.D. under Gunn's watchful eye. Gunn's
job, in his words, was the "care and feeding of graduate students." To him, Schneider was quiet, and, for a while,
seemed "about average."
"I had no idea for a quite long time actually how very bright and hardworking he was," said Gunn, currently the
Eugene Higgins Professor of Astrophysics at Princeton University.
Gunn has taught a lot of students. But there's just something in Don Schneider that Gunn had never seen before—a kind of star quality.
"It soon became evident that he was both incredibly smart and incredibly energetic," Gunn said. "The most
energetic student I've had in my career. He never stopped working. I don't think he ever slept. Give him an idea and he would run away and before you had time to think it through, he had it solved."
Before long, though, it was 1982 and Schneider had earned his Ph.D.
and decided it was time for a vacation.
He had worked hard and deserved some time to himself.
So what did Schneider do? He sat down in his office and spent his vacation writing a computer space war
game for a new mini supercomputer, named Vax.
He worked on the game, called "Planets," hard—if not harder—than he
worked on his Ph.D. degree, Gunn said. Schneider wanted to know how he would maneuver a
space craft using the laws of physics.
"He was very proud of it," said Gunn, who by then had moved cross country to work at Princeton.
Schneider had Gunn try the game. He also made several graduate students play it.
No one could beat the game.
Einstein was there
The "thread that's run through all his academic work," as Gunn called it, started when Schneider was given a
post-doctoral position at Cal Tech to study under the man who coined the term "quasi-stellar," Maarten Schmidt.
As Schneider delved more deeply into his studies, he was intrigued by the hunt for the luminous, mysterious, celestial bodies.
After serving as Schmidt's post-doctoral assistant from 1982 until 1985, learning everything he could about
quasars, Schneider followed Gunn. Schneider had been awarded another post-doctoral position, with the staff at
the Institute for Advanced Study, where some of the world's most gifted scientists—including Albert Einstein,
who was there from 1933 to 1955—had roamed the halls.
Gunn was about to get involved in something that people had only dreamed about—a massive project that would
later be known as the Hubble Space Telescope. From its orbit around the earth, the Hubble takes amazing pictures of everything from nearby stars to distant galaxies and nebulae.
Schneider said that if he had been "run over by a truck" in 1965, the Hubble Space Telescope would still have
launched. He acknowledged, though, that the keystone of the project was the subject of Schneider's thesis—charge-coupled devices, or CCDs, which convert light into electronic signals that are sent back to earth.
"My thesis adviser used this new technology to propose a camera for the Hubble Space Telescope," Schneider said. "Part of my thesis was he had these detectors, and I would go up and take observations with them. Not only was I doing science, but I was testing out the effectiveness of this type of detector for astronomy. I later became an associate member of the camera team, and I did do a fair amount with the HST—a fair amount of my time is what I mean."
The work on Hubble was moving along smoothly, until late Tuesday morning, Jan. 28, 1986.
Schneider remembers it well. On Tuesdays, his team would have a big lunch discussion, and he was sitting in
his office working to get ready for the meeting.
Right before noon, someone barged into Schneider's office and delivered the shocking news: The space shuttle
Challenger had exploded, killing all seven crew members.
Schneider turned on the radio, and listened in silence and shock.
From liftoff, it took the shuttle just 59 seconds to disintegrate, but it delayed the launch of Hubble four years.
Schneider's five-year post-doctoral position was renewed for a second term.
Hubble finally launched in 1990.
"It's something to look back," Schneider said. "You look back and say, 'Wow, I did make a contribution.' It
was fun, I learned a lot, and it really was an honor to do it."
Gunn said that while he and Schneider are friends and talk frequently, the astrophysicist has always been a quiet
person, a private man. Ask Schneider about his religious beliefs, and he'll acknowledge he's Roman Catholic, but he'll politely decline to go deeper. He's a man of few words.
Take the day Schneider walked into work at the Institute for Advanced Study in 1989 and announced he
was engaged to a woman from Holland. Gunn didn't even known Schneider was dating anyone.
"He's a very private individual," Gunn said. "We talk mostly about science, about how we feel about where the
scientific field is going, about scientific colleagues, but very, very seldom about family matters or feelings. I had
no idea, for example, that he was involved with the young lady that became his wife."
Schneider met Jet (pronounced Yet), a Dutch citizen, in 1987 when she visited her brother, a colleague in
Schneider's department. She was in America for only a few weeks, but she and Schneider corresponded by letter afterward. And in 1989, they were married.
The big number: 105,811
There's something about hunting for the unknown that draws Schneider to the night sky.
You see, when you look at the moon, the sun, the stars and distant galaxies, you're looking back in time.
Schneider, in all seriousness, considers himself a time traveler. He may not have a fancy time machine or a mysterious portal, but he does have a thirst for knowledge, something much more powerful – and much more realistic.
"As you look at more distant things, you're looking back in time," Schneider said. "By finding these objects at
greater distances, we're looking at the universe when it was younger. When you look at a galaxy a billion light
years distant, you're seeing the galaxy as it was a billion years ago. So we have in some sense a time machine. We can actually look back in the past."
Gaze at the moon, and you see it as it was 1.3 seconds ago; look at the sun, and you see it as it was 8.3 minutes
ago. Look at the nearest star, and you see it the way it looked when some kindergartners were born, 4.4 years
When Schneider is looking at quasars, he's looking at how they existed billions of years ago.
"Where did we come from?" Schneider said. "What's happening to the universe now? ... What could be more fascinating? ... How did the universe come to be in its current state just strikes me as one of the ultimate questions."
When the first phase of the Sloan Digital Survey began with a meeting in 1988, there were 10,000 known quasars.
Gunn, one of the scientists at the center of the project, asked Schneider to help out.
"I knew that he would work very hard and that he would enormously contribute to it," Gunn said.
The idea behind Sloan was to scan a quarter of the sky using a spectrum to get a rough idea of the object's tem-
perature and what it is, among other things. Schneider was named the chair of the quasar science group. But it wasn't a position of power, Schneider insisted. He said he was just there to coordinate, to use his easy Midwestern way to ask people to contribute by doing particular tasks.
Though there's a telescope at Apache Point, N.M., that scanned the sky and reported the data, Schneider didn't
leave Princeton. He managed his team using teleconferences, and he still does. Still, he misses gazing through a
"There's just something very romantic," Schneider said. "I remember going up the elevator, looking into the sky,
and I remember thinking I'm going to do some battle with Mother Nature tonight and try to get some secrets, and
we'll see who wins. Mother Nature normally won. Occasionally, I did get some good observations."
The project was given a budget from the Sloan Foundation to complete it by 2005, but the team didn't
quite draw closure. The project then entered its second phase, with a deadline by 2008—and it finished in July
One of its goals was to find 100,000 new quasars; it eventually yielded 105,811. Last month, Schneider fin-
ished cataloguing the quasars' brightnesses, distances and "other properties that astronomers are interested in."
The data encompassed more than 15 years of his life.
"I think perhaps one of the single most important things that Sloan found is that we're able to go far enough back
that we can see where the universe is becoming transparent again," Schneider said.
He uses the word "clever" to describe how he viewed different accomplishments and feats. His colleagues would
use the term "brilliant."
"He's one of the key people that led the Sloan survey," Nic Ross, who for two years worked under Schneider at
Penn State in a post-doctoral position, said in a telephone interview from the University of California at Berkeley,
where he is now in residence. "Before the Sloan quasar survey, the biggest survey was 1,000 at the beginning of
the '90s. When he was giving talks back in the early '90s, it was just going to be 100 times bigger. People thought it would never work, and now it's like 'there you go.' This is a very ambitious project where people initially thought it was too pie-in-the-sky."
But between the first teleconference and the last day of Sloan II, Schneider found a new "Happy" home.
A faculty appointment
It was Super Bowl Sunday, 1994, the first time Schneider had visited Nittany Lion country. Dallas was
tackling Buffalo as Schneider was wrestling with the decision of whether to relocate his family from Princeton.
But there was something about Penn State that stirred Schneider deep inside on that January day. It was peaceful,
not only a nice place to visit, but a nice place to live.
The vibrant, buzzing college town was nestled in the middle of Pennsylvania's farm country.
"I liked the town, I liked the area very much," Schneider said. "I grew up on a farm. I just like this type
of environment very much."
And he likes teaching Astronomy 291 and 292, a year-long introductory course on technical astronomy—just as
he enjoys mentoring students.
"Some of them are truly outstanding," Schneider said. "I've been teaching for 15 years and there are a number of
amazing students that I've taught. Yes, a number have gone on to good careers, good graduate programs, gone to
prestigious post-docs, and now I'm getting old enough that some of them even have faculty positions.
"It's like your academic children going out, and I hope I've infused them with knowledge and enthusiasm and
curiosity," said Schneider, whose two sons, Raymond and Timothy, are in high school. "In another generation, in 30, 40 years [they'll] be running the world, and I hope that I contributed to that."
Now in its third phase, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey has a new survey coordinator: Don Schneider. His job is to
handle the day-to-day operations of the survey. In addition to tying up loose ends by cataloguing the 105,811 quasars discovered during Sloan I and II, Schneider now delegates work and runs conference calls with astronomers from 20 institutions across the country.
It was harder to convince the astrophysicist to take the job than to narrow down the candidates, Gunn said. It took
some arm twisting but Schneider, the "superb team player," eventually accepted.
"Don is very solid and makes very good decisions," Gunn said. "The job involves a great deal of leadership."
Schneider has his fingers in different projects, including an experiment to find several hundred planets around other stars and an appointment as Penn State's Hobby-Eberly Telescope Scientist.
As the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Scientist, Schneider will be responsible for keeping "science goals" at the fore-
front as management decisions on operations are made, according to Larry Ramsey, head of astronomy and astro-
physics, and Dan Larson, dean of Penn State's Eberly College of Science.
His colleagues have no doubt that Schneider—who often can be found listening to Gregorian chants in his
office while cataloguing quasars or in preparation for a teleconference—can handle pretty much anything.
"Don is a tremendously productive scientist, an excellent teacher who has very high standards for himself and
for his students, and he's a great citizen," Larson said. He added that Schneider's major role with the Sloan projects "has made him one of the most highly cited astronomers in
Gunn also noted Schneider's energy and focus.
"Passion is a thing one can only gauge by output because words are cheap," he said. "Don doesn't verbalize
how he feels about the subject very much, but all you have to do is look at his work. It's clear from the quality and quantity that he's very passionate about it."
Schneider has the rare ability to sift through the "crap" that sometimes fuels astronomers' research, Gunn said.
"Someone will have some neat idea and everyone rushes to work on it," Gunn said. "Whether it's a good idea or
it's a crappy idea, that's sort of fashion that guides research. Don is just incredibly stable, and he doesn't pay
any attention to this crap at all. He decides what he thinks is important, works on it until it's done, then looks around for something else to work on. He's someone whose work and judgment you can trust. It's this kind of dispassionate look at the field, which we all kid ourselves that we have, that makes him very, very special."