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The Orbit Not Taken


This otolaryngologist started out as a budding astronomer cataloging the firmament in rural Kentucky.

I'm not exactly sure when it was that I first thought about being a doctor. It was sometime in middle school, I think, but the idea formed with very little information and almost no guidance. My father wasn't a doctor, so that wasn't the impetus. The only doctor in the family was a first cousin, who was a pulmonologist treating black lung patients from the Eastern Kentucky coal mines, but I didn't know him very well. It was an idea that eventually became a maniacal, single-minded goal and, ultimately, a career reality.

Before that, however, I wanted to be an astronomer.

I grew up in a small town in central Kentucky, and it was bona fide small: you could count the number of stop lights on one hand (five), and then the number of high schools on the other (one). Big-city folk may find small town life boring, but this stems from a lack of imagination, at least in a young kid's mind. One of the many wonders of my small town life was the nighttime sky. Other than the occasional street light, the stars and the moon were the only things that lit up the night sky, and what a fiery show it was!

My fascination with starry nights resulted partly from my longstanding fascination with science. Watching the endless stellar dance around the sky was my direct connection with space, and all the secrets and wonders hidden amongst the planets and galaxies. What a privilege it would be to study these wonders, and I had my first observatory right there in my backyard - the only tools I needed to start my career in astronomy were keen vision and a star map!

The need for the star atlas quickly gave way to the desire for a telescope. Conquering the constellations only made my hunger for searching deeper space more acute. My father encouraged my enthusiasm by getting me my first telescope, a four-inch Newtonian reflector. This was Christmas time, and winters in Kentucky can be crisp and cold. But this is the best time for stargazing - the cold air cuts down on the atmospheric turbulence, and twinkling stars take on a piercing intensity like lasers in the firmament. The brighter stars seem to cast shadows on those cold December nights. Now armed with my maps and my scope, I could start down my path following the footsteps of the giants of astronomy: Edmond Halley, Charles Messier, Galileo, Tyco Brahe. Exploring the moon's surface quickly lead to picking off the planets, one by one. Then came the long searches for the more difficult objects: the deep sky nebulae, the star clusters, the majestic galaxies.

However, cracks started to appear in my plans to become an astronomer. The first disappointment I experienced as an amateur astronomer was that the views I found in my backyard observatory did not remotely resemble the pictures printed in the astronomy books. Those published pictures are brilliant, multicolored, finely detailed masterpieces - the products of very sophisticated photography, using lenses measured in meters, not inches. My poor Newtonian, could only muster cottony wisps of gray light speckled with tiny flecks of stars - which in retrospect was nothing compared to the dumbfounding images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope today.

The final blow to my budding career as an astronomer was the dawning realization that astronomy had more than a whiff of the esoteric to it. The discovery of the background microwave radiation of space in 1964 was one of the major landmarks of 20th century radio astronomy; it is a major strut supporting the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe. But you can't hold theory in your hands, and for me it didn't have the same sense of accomplishment as, say, designing a bridge, or holding pressure on a pulsing carotid bleed. The astronomer that discovered the first neutron star must have felt the most amazing excitement when he realized his discovery. However, even though astronomy is a beautiful science, and gazing into the stars is like opening a window to the clockworks of the universe, it isn't the same as saving a child from dying or killing a deadly bacterium.

About the time filming was wrapping up on "Raiders of the Lost Ark", a physicist from UC-Berkeley named Luis Alvarez, noticed a streak of iridium next to the K-T layer in geologic strata around the world. That happened to be the layer marking the end of the last age of the dinosaurs. Alvarez had discovered the "smoking gun" that had killed the dinosaurs: remnants of the asteroid that had crashed into the Earth’s crust, causing worldwide fires, climate upheaval, and global extinctions. But by that time, my mind had moved on from Skylab to scalpels. I was in high school, and my new passion was dreaming about surgery and healing sick people. I reasoned that the gratification inherent in treating surgical patients would be much quicker and more rewarding for me than probing the sky for tidbits of information.

That was many years ago, and I can’t imagine myself being anything other than a doctor. However, I realize now that studying killer asteroids and rogue comets could hardly be called an esoteric science. The odds of a major catastrophic impact upon Earth are extremely low, but the stakes are unimaginably high. NASA now runs the NEO Program, searching for Near Earth Objects that might potentially cross our paths some day, literally.

As an otolaryngologist, I get no greater satisfaction than removing a vocal lesion and restoring someone’s voice. But sometimes, when I find myself gazing up at the night sky, I think "Keeping watch for potential extraterrestrial world killers couldn't be any less exciting!"

John K. Jarboe, MD, is an otolaryngologist with a special interest in professional voice disorders, practicing in the heart of Atlanta. Between attending birthday parties and swim classes with his two smart, beautiful daughters, and sharing date nights with his extraordinary wife, he enjoys golf, photography, and writing. He may be reached at john.jarboe@yahoo.com.

This essay was contributed as part of the November 2010 Physician Writer Search topic "The career I would have had if I hadn't become a doctor."


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