Johannes Norheim ’16 is a case study in wanderlust. Born in Norway, Norheim grew up in Spain and France, came to the United States for college, interned in the Netherlands, and now, as an MIT graduate student focused on space studies, quite literally is aiming for the stars.
Paradoxically, it is Norheim’s sense of community with the people of many different lands, forged over a lifetime devoted to language and culture study, that fuels his interest in space. Learning multiple languages has “built in me this feeling of belonging, not just to a group of people…but to the world as a whole,” he says. “When we explore the cosmos, what matters are not the borders down on Earth, but the planet we all share underneath our feet.”
When he came to MIT for his undergraduate education, Norheim was already fluent in French, Spanish, and Norwegian, and proficient in German. Out of curiosity, he began to learn Chinese during freshman year IAP. “I think traveling and moving a lot has given me the drive to explore new cultures, and taking language classes with MIT’s Global Studies and Languages (GSL) department is very close to the feeling of learning another culture,” he says. “It’s not about memorizing words and achieving skills, but learning about history and societal factors that give you a snapshot of what it’s like to live in a particular country.”
After four semesters of Chinese, Norheim took a break to focus exclusively on engineering projects, including a NASA-sponsored competition for designing a small-scale lunar orbiting communications satellite. He advanced work on this kind of nanosatellite in France the summer after his junior year, but when he returned to MIT, was eager to resume language studies.
“It’s a reinforcing loop,” says Norheim. “Taking a language makes you think international, and going international makes you want to learn more languages.” He was also looking forward to resuming his GSL experience. “The great thing about these classes is that they are completely nontechnical, and force different parts of my brain to work,” he says. “It’s like a breath of fresh air in my regular day, with a completely different feel but always fascinating.”
Norheim found this to be especially true for the language in which he next chose to immerse himself: Russian. With the same professor for three semesters, Maria Khotimsky, Norheim found himself engaged in an entirely new way.
“She was the best teacher I’ve ever had, managing to get things across really well, always tying new vocabulary to some real-world references for Russian,” he says. “We had cooking classes to help us learn new words about food, and there was a lot of eating.” Khotimsky found a way of linking motion verbs, “a big thing in Russian,” says Norheim, “to something really fun.” What might otherwise have been a lesson of exercises in rote memorization involved instead sharing Russian fairy tales Khotimsky had learned growing up, and watching movies essential to Russian pop culture. “This was a class that could have been boring, and she made it really fun,” he says.
After taking GSL classes, especially Russian, Norheim felt he grasped an essential aspect of language learning: “When talking, your language can be perfect, but if you don’t get the jokes and allusions during conversations, you feel like an outsider,” he says. “But if you’ve learned these reference points, it doesn’t matter if your language is perfect; you get the people and feel part of the team.”
Because of his early opportunities to live in different countries, Norheim declares that he has “been lucky with languages.” But it may be more accurate to say that he grasped early on how language can serve as a passport not just to new lands, but to new domains of learning and experience. “I think of these languages not as tools I use in case of emergency, but an excuse to go to countries, and to build experiences with people there around my interests.” Learning Russian, he says, “has motivated me very much to go to Russia, which is a big space force, and to do something related to my research.”
One of Norheim’s recent research projects, a NASA study simulating communications and operations constraints on Mars, took him to similar geological environments on Earth, like a volcanic park in Hawaii. He had to work on a tool for astronauts to find their way through uncharted territory, with minimal guidance from others. He found field testing this tool exciting, and a reminder of what he most likes to do: “Life is a combination of setting up things I want to make happen, and letting circumstances play out,” he says.
His next research endeavors will move him in a different direction, into the earliest conceptual design stages of engineering spacecraft. “I’ll be working within the area of systems engineering, a domain where you have to put together knowledge from a lot of different areas, like power, thermal, and propulsion, amongst several others” he says.
In some ways, he says, systems engineering informs and feeds his language learning.
“In today’s world, people work on the same projects across different cultures and languages, so an expert in one place makes a part of your satellite, and someone else in another place works on communications,” he says. “I want to take advantage of my language skills so I can work on projects that cross borders, and that allow me to interact easily with people.”
Norheim feels sure that the multilingual and cultural skills he has developed at MIT, along with his engineering and technological background, will open up new work opportunities for him all over the world. He likes the idea of building a career that is not rooted in a single place, nor defined by a single country. “Learning many languages, working with GSL, and traveling abroad gives me a holistic view,” he says. “Today, when you see people closing in on themselves, hear talk of nationalist pride, it’s important to remember at the end of the day, we’re humans on spacecraft Earth, and have to work together.”