Meet Howard Singer
Howard J. Singer
NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center
Why does your work for NOAA matter?
I work at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), one of the nine National Centers
for Environmental Prediction in the National Weather Service. As part of the NWS, our job is
to deliver space weather products and services that meet the evolving needs of the nation.
That means that we provide alerts and warnings of space weather conditions on the sun and in
near-Earth space that affect astronauts, GPS accuracy, airlines flying over the poles, navigation
and communication systems and electric power grids, to name a few. During my years in
NOAA, I've contributed to these efforts by working with the NOAA GOES satellites that provide
observations of space weather conditions on the sun and in the near-Earth space environment;
by leading a research and development group and carrying out research that improves our
understanding of space weather and its consequences; and by transitioning space weather data,
models and understanding into operations. Each of these activities makes a difference when it
comes to protecting society and supporting our economy.
What do you enjoy the most about your work?
I was attracted to NOAA by the opportunity to carry out exciting work that spans scientific
disciplines extending from the sun to the upper atmosphere and to use the results of that labor
to improve space weather predictions that bring benefits to human activities. I particularly
enjoy the interactions between science and operations; the opportunity to work with scientists
around the world; to contribute to national committees that help to guide our science future;
and to teach, lecture and write about space weather and space science. In my career, I've
had exciting opportunities that include being the responsible scientist for magnetometers
on satellites, spending more than a year at South Pole Station, Antarctica where I had the
opportunity to view the aurora, and visiting facilities and people in places such as Fairbanks,
Alaska; Newcastle, Australia; Kiruna, Sweden; and Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In field studies?
Most of my work is done in my office and our center (Space Weather Prediction Center) with
access to people, information, and computers. Equally important, are face-to-face meetings,
workshops and conferences with colleagues in the U.S. and around the world with whom
we share knowledge and tools to improve services for customers affected by space weather
disturbances. Satellite work has often involved traveling to facilities that build and test
instruments, as well as the satellites. Serving on national committees and reviews often
requires travel to other facilities.
What in your lab could you not live without?
Without a doubt, the most important thing I couldn't live without is the people in our
organization. They are a great group with a diversity of knowledge, skills and approaches
to carrying out our work. Our work is in great part collaborative and depends not only on
the people in our own organization but also on those in other parts of NOAA, other U.S.
agencies, universities and international and commercial organizations.
None of our work could be carried out without the support and direction from
those at higher levels and the U.S. taxpayers.
If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what
would it be? Why?
If I could invent any instrument to advance my research, it would be one that could image
dynamic processes in Earth's magnetosphere just as we image cloud cover and atmospheric
temperature on Earth from satellites in space. The magnetosphere is the region around
Earth with radiation belts and plasma controlled by Earth's magnetic field, the solar wind
and solar disturbances. Most of what we learn in this vast region of space comes from in-situ
measurements from a limited number of spacecraft and ground-based facilities. Although some
of the plasma has been imaged in recent years, most is invisible, except for local measurements.
Finding new ways to image Earth's magnetosphere would settle many important scientific
questions and enable us to better predict consequences of disturbances in the space
environment on power grids, satellites, navigation, GPS, astronauts and other human and
When did you know you wanted to pursue science?
My interest in science came at an early age. My father was a photographer, and we frequently
talked about science at home. In addition, while in elementary school, we didn't have a
library near us, but every week during the summer, a "bookmobile" would come down our
street. One week, I selected a large book called "All about Molecules." I remember being
flabbergasted by the large number of molecules in a drop of water—a 1 followed by more
zeros and commas than I had ever before seen. For a long time after that, I wanted to be a
nuclear physicist, but astronomy was also an interest, perhaps from the time in elementary
school that we constructed a scale-sized model of the solar system. One thing led to another,
often serendipitous, but with a focus on science. After a B.S. in Physics, and an M.A in Physics
and Astronomy, I sort of fell into Geophysics and Space Physics at the University of California,
Los Angeles (UCLA), where I received my Ph.D. (That followed a stint in Antarctica, working for
UCLA, where I did solid earth geophysics, but that's another story.)
What's at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in
A single favorite doesn't come to mind, but I recommend reading books that deal with the
history of science. Science is exciting and fascinating, but so are the people who do the science.
Anyone exploring a career in science will benefit from reading about scientists, how they get
their ideas and make their discoveries, their connections to the past and the ways they and their
work fit into their society and time in history.
And how about a personal favorite book?
I have many favorites, some touch on science and some don't. Among those that touch on
science, I enjoy science fiction, especially the sort of fiction that is plausible or builds on science
fact rather than fantasy. One excellent book that fits this category is Timescape, by Gregory
Benford. His story deals with the so-called "grandfather paradox" of going back in time and
doing something to affect your own future. Another favorite author is Fred Hoyle, a scientist
known in part for proposing the steady state universe, and who wrote more than a dozen
science fiction books that include good science discussions.
Do you have an outside hobby?
I don't set aside as much time as I would like for hobbies, but hiking in the Colorado mountains
or just walking on nearby trails is what I enjoy most. I am moved and inspired by the scenic
grandeur and enjoy experiences such as a peaceful lunch alone or with friends and family after
reaching a high-mountain lake surrounded by snow-covered peaks. The symphony, folk music,
good wine and travel are other "hobbies" important in my life.
What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?
It's difficult for me to imagine not being a scientist, but at various times I've thought about
this question and "forest ranger" has come to mind. I probably have an idealized and romantic
view of what it takes to be in that profession, but I love the outdoors, whether in the forests
and mountains or spending over a year in Antarctica, as I did early in my career. Caring for the
environment and explaining it to others would give me great satisfaction. In some ways, that
seems connected to what I do now—exploring the space environment and educating others
about how to cope with the conditions created by solar interactions with Earth. I've also thought
about working in a bookstore because of my love for books.
Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?
I don't know if this counts as "historical" because it's rather recent, but Richard Feynman has
always been one of my scientific idols. I'm in awe of Feynman's ability to explore and explain
science and to do it with humor. Feynman had a remarkable ability to explain basic physical
concepts with simplicity and from totally different approaches than I had learned in school. His
popular book on quantum electrodynamics, QED, played a role in my views on the importance
of exploring alternatives, both in science and life in general. I am glad that I had the opportunity
to hear him speak in person, shortly after he won his Nobel Prize, and that in later years, I
worked with his sister Joan, an excellent scientist in her own right. For years, I challenged
friends to identify the location of a little known country, Tannu Tuva, which I learned about from
collecting stamps. Then one day, I learned that Feynman knew about Tuva as well. Sharing that
uncommon knowledge made me feel a bit closer to this scientific genius. If only some of that
genius could have rubbed off.