How to Reach for the Stars
Astrophysicist Harvey Moseley ’69 on the values that have shaped his life and career.
Harvey Moseley ’69, astrophysicist and quantum-computing expert, has dedicated his career to solving problems that most people don’t even know exist. The words “quantum computing” and “X-ray spectroscopy” conjure images of scientists huddled over computers and datasheets with seemingly never-ending strings of numbers. For over 40 years, Moseley has been that scientist, using complex mathematical equations to develop instruments and technologies that help us reach the farthest part of our solar system.
Moseley grew up on a farm in Chesterfield County, Va., on the border of Virginia and North Carolina. Coming to Episcopal, he says, was a challenge that helped him find the path that the next years of his life would follow. After graduation, Moseley followed his longtime girlfriend to Connecticut College, where he continued his studies in mathematics and physics. After graduating in just three years, he married Sarah and they moved together to Chicago, where Moseley attended graduate school at the University of Chicago. In 1980, Moseley took a position at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
For 38 years, Moseley worked on projects ranging from the Cosmic Background Explorer — which confirmed the Big Bang theory of the universe and earned a Nobel Prize for team leaders — to the James Webb Space Telescope, a successor to the Hubble. Recently, he has taken his astrophysics experience into the field of quantum computing, where he is working to advance quantum computers as part of the team at Quantum Circuits, Inc.
Amiable and personable, Moseley speaks about the intricacies of astrophysics in a way that makes even this liberal arts major believe she can almost understand it. Below, Moseley shares some of his thoughts — not on the world of telescopes and satellites, but on his personal values, his advice for young EHS alumni, and how his time at EHS has affected the rest of his life.
Values that have shaped Moseley’s life
I don’t necessarily think about that a lot. If I had to say, “What are the things that really matter?” I think the two values that are really important in the world are fairness and truth. If you like finding out the truth, then a career in science is a great way to go. You have to want to get to the truth more than you want any particular answer.
Fairness is the other one that is important. Think of the Golden Rule and imagine any interaction between yourself and any other person. You have to understand what it would look like if you were in their position and if they were in yours. And you both have to be aware of that and act in such a way to maximize fairness so that both people come out as well as they can. We’re all in this together.
Advice for other EHS alumni
You have to choose important problems and then seek out really talented people to work with to find the solutions. Many things you try won’t work at first. It is important to be able to keep a continuous supply of sufficiently good ideas so that you know what to do next if the first thing doesn’t work.
Do something that you think you could be happy doing for a long time. People now change jobs at a rapid pace, but developing a core of skills and abilities makes you appealing for whatever job you want to do.
Takeaways from his time at EHS
Going to Episcopal was an important thing for me, coming out of the rural culture of my home and trying to figure out the next step. The years that I was at Episcopal were really tough personally because of my mother’s death, but I came out of it with a level of academic and intellectual confidence that led me to believe that I would be okay at whatever I chose to do. The things that I remember most were largely academics. I enjoyed them and it was confidence-building for me to come in from a small rural school and to be able to go in there and say, “Yeah, I can do this.”
I still have a number of lifelong friends from the Episcopal days. It’s important to find friends who are thoughtful and interesting. When you have such friends, you have to value them and do what’s required to maintain those friendships. It can be hard work, but that is probably as close as I can come to advice.