Willie Wei-Hock Soon is so passionate about his work that one can even sense his enthusiasm through his e-mail. Not only was the Cambridge-based astrophysicist’s response to my e-mailed questions incredibly detailed and impassioned, it was also filled with so much scientific information that it seemed more like a PhD thesis than an actual interview.
One of the most prominent experts in his field today, the Kangar-born Soon, 39, has been an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in Massachusetts since his 1991 post-doctoral fellowship.
Life in the United States is a far cry from life in quiet little Kangar. “I rarely have time to socialise or engage in more outdoor activities that I like. Besides the occasional summer vacation when I can take a week or two off, I spend most of my time working,” he said.
“Living in the US is not difficult at all. However, to be successful, one needs to work hard and maintain a positive attitude. I have many American friends who have helped me along the way.
“After so many years of living in the US, I naturally feel more American than Malaysian,” said Soon.
Soon does miss Malaysia though, and from time to time returns to his hometown and spends time with his family, especially his parents.
“I miss my parents, siblings and relatives a lot. I have a great time whenever I’m back,” he said.
According to Soon, he got into his line of work almost serendipitously. “I met a most remarkable man at graduate school – Joseph Kunc, who was my PhD thesis advisor and a professor of physics and aerospace engineering at the University of Southern California.
“Upon completing my PhD, Joe encouraged me to go to the prestigious Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in Cambridge. That was in 1991. There I acquired a deep interest in learning everything there is to know about how the sun impacts Earth’s climate and its upper atmosphere. I have not looked back since.”
Although his research interest is fairly broad, Soon’s work focuses on the changing output of the sun (in its light and charged particles emissions) and how these affect life on Earth.
So, what is a typical work-day for an astrophysicist? “I don’t really have a typical work day. My routine mostly focuses on executing what has been left undone, and getting to the most urgent matter of the day, including editorial duties for the Elsevier Science journal New Astronomy and other consultancy roles,” he said. “I have to work 12-18 hours a day when I am writing and crafting a manuscript or proposal, or chasing some results from computer programmes. You can also see me running, not walking, to the library a lot!
“The amount of time I have to stay away from my family is definitely the hardest part of my job,” said Soon. ”Thankfully, I am blessed with a supportive and understanding wife.”
Soon is married to Julie Pham, and the happy couple celebrated the birth of their first child Benjamin last month. Soon likes his job because he enjoys conducting scientific research. “My line of work may not be glamorous but the level of personal satisfaction is indeed disproportionately high,” he said. “There is something about quiet thinking, rehashing of ideas, seeking verification of those ideas and thoughts in the natural world that kept me hooked for a long time,” said Soon.
According to Soon, the real satisfaction in performing scientific research is in communicating interesting results to his peers and the general public.
Soon was elated when he found out that students at the University of Nigeria have been utilising his small textbook, Introduction to Astronomy and Astrophysics, which was written for students with no access to telescopes. The book was written in collaboration with a Nigerian colleague, Pius Okeke.
“That textbook was a labour of love in which I strove to share my knowledge to provide a better education to students in resource-deprived countries,” said Soon. Another memorable moment was when Soon and a colleague were asked to provide a professional testimony (which is available at http://epw.senate.gov/108th/Soon_072903.htm) on the climate history of the past 1,000 years in a full committee hearing at the United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Work.
“My testimony was based on a very extensive collection of research from countless scientists to uncover climatic information from tree rings, ice and seafloor sediment cores, corals, glaciers, and cultural and documentary records,” he said.
“My work on the subject got quite a bit of press attention in the US and Europe. A television crew from Denmark even came to my office to film the stacks of research papers I had!”
Soon’s first book was published last year. Titled The Maunder Minimum and the Variable Sun-Earth Connection, it refers to an extended 70-year period in which sunspots were noted to have almost disappeared from the Sun’s surface.
Soon is planning to write another book. “I want to find more time and fresh ideas to attempt a more serious book on the subject of global warming and various environmental concerns that are often blown off-proportion,” he said. “There have not been many approaches and ideas for better co-habitation between man and his environment that relies on common sense. I am particularly against current alarmism on almost every environmental issue that often misuses science as a cover.
“We seem to be moving dangerously away from science-by-evidence to science-by-public appeals; and that is bad not only for science but also for the public who will be left ignorant if alarmism in the popular media is not corrected and dispelled.”
Fact fileName: Willie Wei-Hock Soon
Hometown: Kangar, Perlis
Education (primary to tertiary): Khoon Aik Primary School (Kangar, Perlis), Sekolah Menengah Syed Sirajudin (Jejawi, Perlis), Sekolah Menengah Dato Sheikh Ahmad (Arau, Perlis).
Years abroad: 25
Occupation: scientist, astrophysicist
Current base: Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Massachusetts