For decades, Fred Eiserling squinted through electron microscopes to study bacteriophages—viruses that infect bacteria—on the scale of millionths of millimeters.
In his free time, however, he photographed faraway galaxies and nebulae measuring light-years across—a hobby he continues to pursue today.
“It allows me to really put the universe in perspective after having stared at viruses for a few years,” says Eiserling, an HHMI undergraduate program director and associate dean of life sciences at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
Among the most gorgeous objects in the sky, according to Eiserling, are nebulae—billowing clouds of mostly hydrogen gas that represent the births and deaths of stars. With a telescope, he can even capture the colors of different stars. Hot ones glow blue; cold ones appear red. The resulting photographs look like wads of brightly hued, otherworldly cotton candy.
Like children gazing at clouds, astronomers and astrophotographers name these hydrogen clouds for their silhouettes. Eiserling has photographed the Horsehead Nebula, which dangles off the belt of the constellation named for the hunter Orion. And the Dumbbell Nebula, in the fox-shaped constellation Vulpecula, which looks like exercise equipment for the gods.
Eiserling is aiming toward the so-called Needle Galaxy. It’s not actually skinny, but it looks that way to Earthlings because it appears edge-on in our skies. That point of view makes it hard to discern much about the galaxy’s three-dimensional layout. Eiserling wants to find out how far he can push his equipment—a camera bolted to the telescope, mount, and guider to follow objects that move with the Earth’s rotation, all tethered to a computer—to get the maximum detail.
Explore the nighttime sky through the lens of Fred Eiserling's camera.
Astrophotography is no point-and-shoot pursuit; plenty of things can go wrong in the process. “It’s getting more technical as I try to get better and better pictures,” Eiserling says. He has to find the stellar object he’s after, focus properly, track it across the sky, and collect several pictures. Later, at his home computer, he fits the individual pictures together into one stunning photograph.
Because so much artificial light spills into the skies around Los Angeles, Eiserling can’t practice his hobby at home. So once a month, when the moon is new, he and his wife, physician Phyllis Guze, make the seven-hour drive to much darker territory, the shore of Baja California in Mexico. There Eiserling and his brother built a small observatory, like a storage shed with a roll-off roof, to house their five-foot-long telescope.
Eiserling fell for the stars when he was 12 during a class trip to the local Griffith Observatory. Soon after, he joined fellow sky enthusiasts in the observatory’s basement, where he hand-ground the mirror for his first homemade telescope. “It wasn’t the greatest,” he recalls, “but it was mine.”
When Eiserling was a student at UCLA in the 1950s, advisors told him there were no jobs in astronomy—the university didn’t even have a Ph.D. program in the subject. So he turned to bacteriology.
He indulged in one astronomy course, and in 1957, he and fellow students plotted the course of a little Russian orbiter known as Sputnik. Within a few years, the space race was on and, as Eiserling recalls, “They couldn’t find enough astronomers!”
He has no regrets, however, about pursuing nanoscale biology. “I discovered that there were these incredible tools … that allowed you to see things at the level of molecules,” he says. “I found that to be tremendously exciting.”
Back at UCLA, Eiserling focuses on what he calls his “experiments” in education for about 200 undergrads: most recently, turning dull “cookbook” labs into real experiments in which students discover new viruses or pursue other novel data. Some students get to take home electron microscope portraits of bacterial viruses they’ve discovered in class.
And on a dark evening, you can still find him staring up at the sky.