Michael Acierno retires: A look back at 42 years of technological advancement and camaraderie

 The seismology group in 1990. Back row left to right: Fred Pollitz, Paul Silver, Selwyn Sacks, Gotz Bokelmann, Michael Acierno, Craig Bina, David James, Alan Linde. Front row left to right: Satoshi Kaneshima, Randy Kuehnel, and Chris Kincaid. Courtesy of Carnegie Institution for Science.

Hired in 1980, Michael Acierno served as a programmer and subsequently the head of IT at Carnegie’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism and then the Earth and Planets Laboratory before IT as a job was a glimmer in anyone’s eye.

Working alongside scientists like Vera Rubin and Alan Linde, Acierno programmed telescopes and seismometers, built our campus's first computer network, and brought us from the early days of computing to today. His work has left a lasting impact on our campus and has bolstered the legacy of scientific achievement of the Carnegie Institution for Science.

The following speech was delivered by Michael Acierno at his retirement party on Monday, July 25, 2022.

 It’s not often one is given the opportunity to have the last word! 

 For now, that last word will remain a secret as I bore you with a timeline of a dropout’s almost two-score years at Carnegie. To put that time frame in context, when I arrived at Carnegie, “I phone” was still just a sentence and would be for another 27 years until Apple removed that sentence from the English language with their introduction of the iPhone.

You might be thinking, “Wait! Did he say dropout?”

Let me explain. 

Bridging the gap

Two score and two years ago, I was in the astronomy Ph.D. program at Columbia University. It wasn’t hard to notice that there were recent Ph.D. graduates still hanging around and being supported by their advisors. These people were a lot smarter than me, so I began to reconsider my situation and future. 

I found myself in an updated version of the classic scene in the 1969 movie “The Graduate.” There is a scene that takes place at Benjamin’s parents’ house during his graduation party. A family friend comes up to Benjamin, the brand new Harvard graduate, to tell him this: 

“I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics! There’s a great future in plastics. Will you think about it? Enough said.”

Well, replace the word plastics with computers, and imagine you’re an astronomy Ph.D. student in 1980 contemplating his future. 

With the advent of smaller and more affordable computers, there was a growing need for people who could bridge the gap between programming and science.

So, I decided to leave Columbia—”dropout” as it were—and see what awaited me in the world of computers with my Columbia Master’s degree in Astronomy. 

I soon landed a job with a small NASA contractor; my employee number was six.

Solar Maximum Mission

I worked at Goddard Space Flight Center on the Solar Maximum Mission, an orbiting solar observatory. About a year after launch Solar Max suffered a catastrophic failure of its gyroscopic assembly and could no longer point accurately, rendering it unable to make observations. 

Fortunately, it was designed for on-orbit repair and was designated to be the first orbital satellite repair mission by the space shuttle. I joined the Solar Max team when preparations were being made for that repair mission and its return to observations.

​​The Solar Maximum Mission (SMM) was launched on 14 February 1980 to, primarily, study the Sun during the high part of the solar cycle. NASA

I’m a space program geek, having grown up during the height of the race to the moon. I even had the wonderful opportunity to see in person the launch of the final moon mission, Apollo 17, in 1972. The launch of a Saturn 5 rocket seen from 3.5 miles away was something to behold—an experience never forgotten.

As a programmer for the Solar Max repair mission, I helped to develop altitude and pointing verification software using onboard instruments. I was able to meet the astronauts on the mission, visit the shuttle cargo bay simulator at Goddard, and during the mission listen to the private communications loop between the shuttle and Houston. This was space nerd heaven.

Witnessing the future of my paycheck fall into the hands of a weightless astronaut wrestling with an uncooperative satellite brought me back to Earth.

The repair was successful, and Solar Max returned to several more years of observations. However, the small contractor I worked for was having trouble getting new contracts, and the reliability of my paycheck loomed large. I started looking for a new job—this was a high bar given my experiences to date at NASA.

A surprise opening for plan b

I turned to the Washington Post classified ads, the Indeed.com of the day.

I applied to several job listings, including one so lacking in detail I was forced to apply just to satisfy my curiosity.

This ad simply read: “Fortran Programmer” with the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism’s (DTM) address.

At the time, I believe one paid the Post either by the word or by the line. In hindsight, this was such a Carnegie move! It reminded me of those cryptic ads Sherlock Holmes placed in the London papers hoping to lure someone with knowledge about a particular crime to 221b Baker Street. Well, it worked. 

My curiosity was about to be satisfied as I was summoned to 5241 Broad Branch Road.

After my interview, several weeks passed with no word, and I assumed the job was not to be. But quite unexpectedly, I received a call from Francois Schweizer asking if I was still interested, to which I said yes. 

Much later, I learned that someone else was given the job because the geophysicists were concerned my astronomy background would bias me toward only working on the astronomy projects. For reasons unknown, the person who they hired never showed up for work. 

Later, some rumors were making the rounds about me calling a certain uncle of mine in Brooklyn to take care of the job opening. Being I’m of Italian-Sicilian heritage, it was a logical conclusion. The rumors were false, of course, but I did have a loving uncle Charlie who came from Sicily and lived in Brooklyn.

(As it happens, I did find out after he died that he worked as part of the local Mafia neighborhood liaison division. A euphemism, perhaps. He did die of natural causes at a ripe old age.)

Given I was plan B after the first no-show, my on-time appearance on my first day of work put me on surprisingly good terms with everyone. Perhaps this first-day enthusiasm helped convince George Wetherill, DTM Director at the time, that I should stay beyond six months—as he was not fully on board with the need for this new position when first proposed. 

Troubleshooting space telescopes

Not much time went by before I had a meeting with Kent Ford, Vera Rubin, and Francois Schweizer. At that time, the Space Telescope Science Institute and DTM were partners with identical computing and image processing hardware meant for analyzing Space Telescope data once it was launched. 

I was asked by the astronomers to work on a library of subroutines that Space Telescope shared with DTM. This software, written by TRW—a large aerospace contractor with a long and successful history with NASA—had its problems. In fact, it had just one problem, it didn’t work at all. So, it was thrown in my lap 

Working with this group of astronomers was akin to Sheldon Cooper working with Stephen Hawking for any of you who are fans of the show The Big Bang Theory. I settled into my new work, confident I had made the right decision.

I spent a week reading the hardware manuals of our fancy image processing system, a 32-inch CRT display connected to four 1024x1024 memory boards that held the red, green, and blue pixel data plus one overlay channel. Then I spent a week trying to understand the TRW sof,tware which taught me an important lesson. 

Not to put a too fine a point on it, but the TRW software was trash. I soon discovered that the reason it didn’t work was that it was written for an entirely different piece of hardware. Trying to unravel the tangle of code would be impossible.

So, I had another meeting with the astronomers, told them what I found, and recommended that I build a new library from scratch. To my surprise, they agreed! In a few months’ time, we had a fully functional image processing software application suite which we shared with Space Telescope and which was used until a standard package called IRAF was made available by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in 1992.

This was a huge confidence booster for me. But what was most striking was the discovery that a large company like TRW, which was paid a lot of money and employed professional software engineers, could do such poor quality work. This would not be the only time I would find so-called professional work to be seriously deficient. It taught me not to be taken in by the sales pitch of corporate minions and their supposed expertise being superior to our own.

This was a wonderful time, working with Kent, Vera, Francois, and then with John Graham and Alan Boss. 

The geophysicists had reason to be worried.

The computer network that wasn’t

But, like sand in an hourglass, the march of time continues, and I’m ready to learn another important lesson as we found ourselves sharing our campus with the Geophysical Laboratory (GL) and moving into the new and creatively named research building.  

My responsibilities during this transition were simple, pick a new office in the research building and move my stuff when the time came. I can do this.

At that time, we had quite a few more computers, all in the Abelson building and we were just beginning to move away from VAX computers to Linux workstations made by Sun Microsystems. We had a handful of Sun workstations, known as SparcStations which were going to benefit from a new and easy-to-implement networking scheme in the research building and eventually all the campus buildings as they were renovated. 

I knew nothing about this new network, and given I had no working knowledge of network design I was fine with that.

Once we moved into the research building, we soon discovered that none of the computers could communicate on this new network, and the realization sunk in that there was a fundamental flaw with the implementation.

I soon got a request to meet with George Wetherill and Charlie Prewitt, the DTM and GL directors. They were very honest with me, telling me that one of the scientific staff had taken on the task of designing the new network for the research building and the rest of the campus. This was welcomed as a way to save some money 

George and Charlie assured me I would get no interference from the staff and I should ask them for whatever I needed to solve this problem. 

Well, this struck me as strange; why would they ask me to fix this, given I had zero knowledge about network design? It seemed they were doubling down on their first mistake.

Of course, I said yes. 

Networking from scratch 

Faced with a problem I hadn’t the faintest idea how to approach—let alone fix, I did what any male of the species should do. I asked my wife for help. Harper was in graduate school at Johns Hopkins studying network engineering. So convenient.

She also worked for a company that did this kind of larger engineering. She arranged a meeting for me with one of her engineering colleagues who came to the campus to review the existing situation and design a solution.

We discovered that the cabling that was chosen, shielded straight-thru six conductor telephone cabling, would never work with the ten Base-T networking switches that were the standard at that time. What was—and still is—required is unshielded twisted pair cabling. This was the fundamental flaw that would never support a functioning network.

The new design would require pulling new cables throughout the research building.

This network engineer provided a full design for all the campus buildings with an itemized list of all the needed hardware. All I had to do was find a contractor to install it all. As an added benefit, this design work was done for free as a professional courtesy!

This probably would not be possible in today’s more restricted environment. I mean, the idea of getting three bids with one of them at zero dollars would certainly raise some red flags.

Needless to say, my presentation of this to George and Charlie went well, and the plan was met with enthusiastic approval. We found a contractor to do the work, which wound up costing us around $80k.

This design is still used today, although the hardware and cabling have been upgraded a few times since then to support higher network speeds.

This project solidified for me the lesson that it is vital to know what you don’t know. The violation of that rule cost us dearly in time and money.

At the same time as this networking project, I was beginning a new phase of my career. 

The geophysical gauntlet

Michael Acierno, a member of a Carnegie DTM team led by Alan Linde installs a borehole strainmeter at Mt. Etna in Sicily, Italy, at the Pizze Deneri site near the summit of the volcano.

Alan Linde, throwing down the gauntlet to see if I would work outside of my interests in astronomy, asked me to work on a modification of their Iceland strainmeter radio telemetry system—upgrading the existing software from 12-bit data to 16-bit data.

Once again, this was doing something for which I had no experience—programming in assembly language for something called a microcontroller.I didn’t even know how one got the program into this thing I never heard of before.

Well, I learned the assembler for this device, learned how to install the program in an EPROM—the SSDs of the day—and even learned how to debug and verify this software using an oscilloscope.

The success of this project launched me into a twenty-plus year effort in support of the strainmeter program, which culminated in Brian Schleigh and me (with the help of Alan and Selwyn) designing and building our own datalogger. This turned out to be an early “internet of things” thingie and they are still in use around the world as part of the civil defense systems in Iceland, Taiwan, Montserrat, and Italy.

Surviving the Montserrat eruption

There are so many fieldwork stories to tell, but the rules of Las Vegas prevail. However, two stories highlight the Carnegie culture and the type of people I was so lucky to call colleagues and friends.

It was July 2003 when Brian and I traveled to Montserrat. This was my first of many trips there.

Brian would be working on the electronics at each strainmeter site, and I was going to configure the radio telemetry system, which actually was a long range WiFi network.

One evening, a few days after our arrival, we come out of Tina’s restaurant where we had dinner, one of about three places to eat on the island, and are met with mud falling from the sky. With almost zero visibility, we slowly make our way back to the house we were renting, the windshield wipers struggling to push the mud away. Somehow, Brian got us home.

Elan, one of our colleagues from another university, staying in the same house, was already home and, in his bedroom, having parked his rental car under the carport where it would be safe.

Brian and I hurried through the mud fall to the second bedroom that we shared. 

What we experienced that long night was the historic dome collapse of the Montserrat Soufriere Hills volcano. The lightning and thunder were continuous most of the night, deafening and frightening. We had to keep our heads under the covers, despite the excessive heat, since ash was falling through the roof onto our beds.

At some point in the night, I had to get up to use the bathroom. Electricity had been out before we got home and the mud falling from the sky made the night even darker.

As I got out of bed and stepped onto the floor, I felt myself stepping into ankle-deep mud.

In a loud voice, to overcome all the outside noise, I tell Brian that the room is flooding with mud. In a muffled voice from under the covers of Brian’s bed I hear the words, “Would you get my shoes off the floor?”

At a moment when I imagined ourselves being a permanent addition to a Caribbean Pompei, Brian’s calm statement and his seemingly misplaced concern about his shoes helped me stay calm and get through the night.

Brian, I could not have asked for a better colleague and friend to share all our travels. Brian’s possibly misplaced optimism that he would actually need his shoes was the elixir of hope that I needed at that moment.

That morning found our house flooded and seriously damaged, and the roof of the carport collapsed—damaging Elan’s rental car that he had so meticulously protected.  

Brian and I decided we should head to the northern end of the island, where we were able to get a room at a hotel. Elan chose to stay in another house on the southern end near our former residence.

Although the island had no electricity with running water available for one hour each evening, they did have food available. The lack of utilities did not reduce the expensive daily rate for the room. 

When we got back, Terry Stahl, DTM’s business manager at the time, never gave us any pushback about the rather expensive travel expense report I submitted for us. I’d like to point out that Terry Stahl and for years now, Wan Kim have always been supportive of us and protecting us from the minutiae of their complicated world of finance.  

Corn grows at night

There’s one more story I must tell that highlights the wonderful spirit of discovery tempered with healthy skepticism and amusement. This is the story of the infamous strainmeter station in Taiwan whose name is “Corn grows at night.”

In the summers, my daughters would spend weekdays at a nearby horse barn where they took riding lessons. Since my schedule was more flexible than Harper’s, I would often drive them there in the morning and pick them up in the evening.

Along the drive to the barn was a farm with acres of corn growing. Over time, I noticed that the height of the corn in the mornings was visibly greater compared to the previous evening, while there was no visible height difference in the evening compared to the morning. 

Based on these observations, I concluded corn grows at night. 

Fast forward to a strainmeter installation trip in Taiwan, where we worked on a farmer’s property. The first few days of a strainmeter installation are the busiest for the drillers, while the Carnegie crew takes advantage of some downtime interspersed with managing the unexpected. 

We were working in an area near the farmer’s family garden where corn was being grown. At an opportune time, I blurted out with great confidence, “Hey, did you know that corn grows at night?”

Well, this was met with a healthy dose of skepticism worthy of any good scientist. I told them my story of discovery which led us into the garden twice a day, the mornings and evenings, with measuring tape and logbook in hand, recording the height of the corn. 

Needless to say, this was a source of immense humor and finger-pointing by our Taiwanese colleagues and the local homeowner—all completely justified. 

After sufficient data were collected and a thorough analysis completed it was confirmed that corn indeed grows at night—much like children and flower blossoms.

I must thank my wife, Harper, who never pushed back against the father of our two young daughters traveling to the earthquake, typhoon, and volcano hotspots of the world. 

I learned never to complain about any hardships endured on my travels, none of which compared to the hard work of single parenting two young children and juggling work, school, and daycare. Of course, when Harper needed to travel, I never said anything but Buon Viaggio, despite knowing how much work faced me during her absence.

Celebrating memories of friends who have passed

Thirty-eight years at one place is not without its tragedies. I’d like to mention a few very close colleagues taken away from us far too early.

First, Paul Silver. Paul was outgoing, full of life, and eternally optimistic. He had the gift of gab and the talent to persuade.  

In 1993, Paul asked Ben Pandit and me to build a system to record the start and end times of several geysers in Yellowstone National Park. We used motion sensors and simple radios connected to a PC with the software I wrote to collect the data—along with a pretty display for the Yellowstone Visitor’s Center at Old Faithful.

This was such a fun project which resulted in several trips to Yellowstone. Paul, being Paul, persuaded the head ranger to put us up in his house in the park. On one trip, Ranger Rick—yes, his name was Rick—gave us a tour of his vast backyard, sections of the park tourists never get to see.  

Paul and I were talking one evening in Yellowstone when I told him who he reminded me of—Bill Murray in “Ghostbusters”! When Bill Murray visits Sigourney Weaver’s apartment to investigate her supernatural claims, she tells him he doesn’t act like your typical scientist. To which Bill Murray responds, “ they can be kind of stiff”. This solicits an observation from Sigourney Weaver, “You’re more like a game show host.” Paul and I had a good laugh when I mentioned this to him.

Paul was always an adventure to be with, in his office or any place else.

Nelson McWhorter was a machinist of extraordinary talent. He kept me sane when on the drilling ship anchored for weeks in the same location as part of the ocean bottom project we were part of. The cafeteria had a self-serve soft ice cream machine. Nelson made good use of this until it broke down. Nelson, with the prospect of many more weeks to go with no ice cream, took it upon himself to fix it. Which he did, to the delight of us all. 

I don’t know if that repair had anything to do with it, but at the end of the voyage, Nelson was offered a job in that ship’s machine shop.

Sandy Keiser was hired after I lobbied for another programmer and administrator as the number of computers and responsibilities was growing beyond my control. Sandy not only filled all the gaps during my absence when traveling in support of the strainmeter program, but she became an essential part of the astronomy research group.

They were all wonderful colleagues and close friends whose lives were cut short. 

Celebrating the people who kept us going

On a happier note, my thanks to Jan Dunlap. Jan is the embodiment of all things Carnegie. She was our oracle of institutional knowledge and helped me navigate the sometimes turbulent waters of the Director’s office. Jan was the barometer of the Director’s office. She would let us know if it was a good or bad weather day and if we should go ahead with our ask of the Director or run away until another day until the barometer improved. 

Gary Bors, the ancestory.com of the BBR campus. With a touch of Mark Twain, Gary can spin a yarn about anyone who was on the campus in the past 50 years.

Gary’s sharply honed humor and wit keep him sane, and the rest of us satisfied as we (especially me) make demands on him and his team for things we only find we need today but had to be done yesterday. Thanks to Gary, Quintin, Maceo, Robert, and Joaquin, who constantly renew this campus, supporting the ever-changing requirements of a thriving research environment.

David James. I never worked with David in the field. Hearing how hard he and his colleagues worked, I think that was a blessing. I imagined myself as Pippin, the hobbit in Lord of the Rings, as he and his friend Merry begin their quest; Pippin remarks to his friend Merry, “We’ve had breakfast, yes. What about a second breakfast? To which Merry replies, “I don’t think he knows about second breakfast.” 

But David was and still is a font of wisdom about work, life, world events, and family, but one episode from long ago stands out.

When Harper arranged daycare for our daughters, she found a provider, Roxanne, whom we both desperately wanted. But Roxanne worked just three days a week. Harper and I decided to seek approval for an augmented work week of four ten-hour days. This way, we could each cover Tuesday and Thursday.

I talked to David and Alan Linde about this, and to my delight, they were supportive and told me to go ahead with this plan. But before the meeting ended, David said, “By the way, Michael, don’t tell the Director about this.” The implication was clear, in the absence of any parental leave policy or accommodation of any kind, the Director would have to say no.

Thank goodness we’ve made some progress in this area. 

I also want to thank the five DTM and EPL directors who were part of my tenure here. 

They always supported my efforts to protect the integrity of our scientific computing environment and improve and expand our resources. They also tolerated without complaint my frequent absences in support of the strainmeter program, so long as email kept flowing.

Standard Linde units

Alan Linde and Michael Acierno lying in the grass during fieldwork in Iceland in 2010

Finally, there’s Alan Linde. Alan took a chance on me, giving me a project for which I had no experience and possibly would not be able to do properly. Alan opened a new path in my career, one I never imagined when leaving  Columbia University.

Even though Alan, being Australian, cannot speak proper English, he was able to teach me so many things that helped me through those early years of learning something entirely new.

Things like teaching me how software must work in the demanding world of real-time data acquisition; for the opportunity to travel and develop friendships with colleagues around the world—not to mention the chance to experience earthquakes, typhoons, and dome collapses.
He even, through a little trickery, introduced me to the delicious Japanese dish known as Unagi, or eel, which I sought out on every subsequent trip to Japan. Alan was an early influencer, not just for exotic foods, but for everything photography and, of course, the only hat one needs to own. The hat is a Tilley, from Canada.

The cost of Alan’s recommendations was so predictably expensive that we developed a new unit to convert the scientific notation needed for the dollar amount to simple integer units known as “Standard Linde Units.” The SLU is a wonderful psychological device to overcome the sheer eye-popping cost of Alan’s influence.

Resistance is futile

I have bored you with all this to point out a common theme. 

I was fortunate, early in my career at Carnegie, to be considered an equal among a group of very smart, very accomplished, and very kind people.

Both in my early work with the astronomers and then my work with the strainmeter group the expectation was that you would be a productive, contributing member of the team not afraid to speak up and offer your opinion, ideas, and solutions. 

Carnegie is similar to the Borg, for those familiar with Star Trek, the Next Generation. Unlike the Borg, Carnegie is a benign collective. However, you will be assimilated, and resistance is futile.

This uncommon culture is something to be cherished, but it is also something from which we always expect more. It serves as the foundation upon which a more diverse and inclusive group of talented people is finally being given the opportunity to thrive in a challenging and creative environment. 

It is this culture, having a sense of belonging and contributing to something important that is one of the key ingredients to Carnegie punching above its weight in so many fields of scientific research.

More work needs to be done as this seems to be a never-ending quest. But there is good news, as I have seen a lot of change in almost two score years at Carnegie with a more diverse group of staff and especially postdocs. 

I will now leave you in the good hands of my very dear colleagues, Adriana, Daniel, Gabor, and Tony, all of whom have been fully assimilated. You already know how skilled and motivated they are, and you see their commitment to supporting science at EPL by the long hours they work and their willingness to accommodate your needs no matter the time or the day. 

As you probably guessed by now, I employ movies and television as a tool to help me interpret the world. There is one more movie reference I would like to make from the Wizard of Oz. 

As Dorothy was getting ready to click her red ruby shoes and return home from the land of Oz, she hugged the scarecrow and said, “I will miss you most of all.” I’ve been fortunate to have all of you as my scarecrow, guiding me along this long, winding road of a career.

Finally, we come to the last word. It’s so obvious you will slap yourself on the forehead once you hear it.

The last word is logout. 

Thank you, all.

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