“It bothered me that I could never really reconcile those worlds,” he says.
Those worlds finally began to align on the evening of Nov. 6, 2010, when Swift was playing a set at The Farmer and The Cook restaurant in Meiners Oaks. Among his listeners that night was Thacher’s longtime woodworking teacher John Bueti, whose daughter Grace (who graduated from Thacher in 2004) was engaged to Swift’s friend Dan Malloy (brother of Chris). When Bueti learned that Swift had a background in astronomy, he told him about Thacher’s dome and its recently acquired telescope. That piqued Swift’s curiosity.
“I went to Thacher and saw the Observatory and thought, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ ” Swift says.
That’s when he crossed paths with Chris Vyhnal. The two of them hit it off, and Swift began helping Vyhnal with the school’s astronomy program, just for fun.
“He was a guest lecturer for my class once or twice,” Vyhnal recalls. “We did some work characterizing the telescope together and trying to conduct a polar alignment on it. He helped me compile some information for a grant I wrote to try and obtain some funding for the observatory, which was ultimately unsuccessful. I think that was when the seed was planted in Jon’s mind that there was a potentially interesting opportunity for him to do some meaningful work here.”
In 2011, another unexpected opportunity came Swift’s way, courtesy of an old graduate-school friend from Berkeley – John Johnson, then at Caltech as an assistant professor of planetary astronomy. Johnson offered Swift a job managing Caltech’s MINERVA Program, which used small, land-based telescopes to identify planets in other solar systems. (MINERVA researchers also sought to determine which of these so-called exoplanets might be similar enough to Earth to support life.)
And so Jon Swift once again changed his career path, toggling from music back to astronomy. He moved his family to Pasadena in January 2012 to take up his new duties at Caltech. But he maintained his Thacher connection, periodically returning to the campus to participate in astronomy-related events. It was on one such occasion in the spring of 2012 that Swift encountered Erich Herzig CdeP 2014, who sought a deeper immersion in astronomy than Thacher’s program could provide.
“This tall, lanky kid walks up to me and says, ‘Hi, Dr. Swift, I want to work with you,’ ” Swift says.
Herzig ended up working with Swift at Caltech that summer on Project MINERVA.
“That kind of paved the way for Justin,” Swift says.
That would be Justin Myles CdP 2013. Myles met Swift in the spring of his senior year, when Swift was back at Thacher briefly as an Anacapa Scholar.
“He gave a guest lecture and hands-on workshop in my calculus class, and I remember being impressed with his teaching,” Myles says. “I wasn’t the only one – after his science talk on exoplanets there was unanimous consensus on campus that his talk was among the best we had seen in recent years.”