Profiles of Astronomers: Nicholas Hunt-Walker

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  • Who are you and where are you from?

I’m Nicholas Hunt-Walker, and I’m a New York native. I moved to Seattle a little over 4 years ago to start grad school at the University of Washington and…I’m still here I guess. Still…here…

  • How did you become interested in Astronomy?

I’m not one of those astronomers that was interested in the sky ever since I was a kid. I came into it through Physics, laziness, and luck. In high school back in Elmont I was pretty good at Physics, so naturally I completely avoided doing Physics when I went off to the first of several colleges. That was fine, since I ended up dropping out of that university and eventually transferred into Queensborough Community College (still in New York), intending to go into Accounting since everyone needs an accountant. To complete my associates degree I needed a science credit, and I chose Astronomy because a) I already had a background in Physics and b) it seemed like it would take the least amount of effort. I was right! The Astronomy that I was taught was really easy, but also really interesting. Especially when it came to stars. My professor at the time (George Tremberger Jr.)  saw the spark of my interest and breathed life into it by getting me into research as soon as the semester ended. It was his effort that kept me in the Astronomy community back then and from there I’ve just been lucky to meet really awesome people to push me forward to learn even more awesome things!

  • If you’re an astronomer (grad/post-doc/faculty), what do you study?

I’m in my fifth year and I study the structure of the galaxy by way of Asymptotic Giant Branch stars. To make it short, AGB stars are the last phase of evolution for any star like our Sun. They’re physically gigantic (like 100 – 1000 times our Sun’s radius), they’re deep red, and they physically pulsate as they slowly die.

  • What’s the coolest thing (not literal) in the Universe?

The coolest thing to me is the interiors of stars (quite the opposite of cool in temperature) and how they generate the elements that are peppered throughout the Universe. In these furnaces, you get direct mass-to-light conversion through nuclear fusion (which creates heavier elements), and then have that energy generated from that fusion scatter about inside the star for millenia before it emerges from the surface as light. You’ve also got convection physically moving hot bubbles of plasma up and down inside the star, magnetic fields getting twisted and tangled together, neutrons pumping up already-heavy elements, and a host of other things going on depending on the mass of the star and its phase of evolution. The interiors of stars are like gigantic Rube Goldberg machines.

  • What’s the coolest thing outside of your field?

The brain (including brainstem), easily. Even if you only take it from the standpoint of signal processing, your brain artfully handles stimuli from thousands of sources routinely, including stimuli from your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and like all of your skin. The fact that it rarely, if EVER, confuses these signals or shuts down its receptors is a testament to the magnitude of its ability. Not only does it do that, but it also simultaneously regulates your heartbeat, breathing, hormone production, and general growth of your body. This is an organic machine that has been around in one form or another for MILLIONS OF YEARS yet only recently are we even getting to the point of being able to create something comparable. I tip my hat to the brain. Or rather, my brain sends the command to my body to tip my hat to the brain.

  • What is your favorite non-astronomy hobby?

My favorite non-astronomy hobby is Capoeira, a martial art with roots amongst the slaves of Brazil and their descendants. I love the constant improvisation and physical conversation that goes on whenever I practice. I’ve been practicing this beautiful art for the past 4.5 years, 3.5 of which have been with Senzala Seattle. It was a very easy way to find family in a foreign place, and I’ve even found that the language of Capoeira is universal, whether you’re in New York, Seattle, or even Italy!

  • Is there anything else you’d like the public to know about you?

Yes! I maintain a blog at http://nhuntwalker.blogspot.com. I’m working on developing my own domain space, but for now all my blog stuff is over there. I write about basically anything that piques my interest. Lately it’s been about science (mostly astronomy and physics), but I’ve also written about Capoeira, personal finance, and the afro-brazilian religion of Candomble. Because of my obsession with Capoeira, I’ve also been learning Brazilian Portuguese for the past few years, and this year I’ve gotten serious about it and have been practicing daily with DuoLingo. I hope to make Portuguese my second language, and then move on to Spanish, French, and others down the line!

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