Looking to the sky
Physics faculty offer more than just a connection to the stars.
By Caitlin O’Donnell ’13
If there is one thing professor Tony Crider wants to resonate from his physics courses, it’s for students and professionals to reengage with the sky.
Each semester the physics department, chaired by Crider, offers courses in astronomy and astrophysics that allow students to do just that.
“I want students to walk away from the Introduction to Astronomy course with an appreciation for the sky overhead,” he says.
Crider discovered his own passion for the field after taking a job at a planetarium his first year as an undergraduate at Bowling Green State University.
“I loved learning about astronomy and talking about astronomy with people,” he says. “Unlike many other aspects of physics, people like to talk about astronomy. There’s something innate in us that wants to know what’s going on, how did it all begin, how it’s all going to end.”
Above all, people wonder if we are alone in the universe.
“I don’t know why that is such a common question for society but astronomy has answers to those or at least attempts to answer those” kinds of questions, he adds.
The difference between astronomy and astrophysics is slight, Crider says, and the latter often falls under the more general umbrella of astronomy.
“With astrophysics, you’re trying to study what physics is going on inside the stars. With astronomy, you might just be cataloguing and observing what is happening there,” he says. “By the time we get to be doing professional astrophysics, you don’t get to spend much time out looking at the sky, you spend a lot of time at the computer looking at lots and graphs and trying to write computer code to fit the curves of data you’ve got.”
Besides sharing his passion for physics with students, Crider is also actively working to attract students to become science and math teachers through the Noyce Scholars Program, which offers two-year scholarships to talented science and mathematics majors to complete a Teacher Education program in addition to their respective degrees.
For many years, Crider was the sole astrophysicist at Elon before being joined in fall 2006 by Claudine Moreau, who currently teaches most of the Introduction to Astronomy sections and directs the astronomy lab program.
In an effort to expose the student body and the community at large to the grandeur of the universe, the physics department offers free programs from time to time. For instance, two years ago it hosted a traveling NASA exhibit that showcased images of the universe taken from the Hubble, Chandra and Spitzer telescopes. In June it hosted a public viewing for the planet Venus as it passed directly in front of the sun.
Junior Danielle White, a business management major, said it’s not necessary to like science to appreciate astronomy. She is one of 10 astronomy teaching assistants and one of many who are not majoring in a science program. In fact, the majority of students who take astronomy courses are not planning to work in the field but simply have a passion for it.
“You don’t have to understand physics to be captivated by the images you see in the telescope,” she says. “It’s all very magnificent. I don’t think I’ll ever get over looking at the moon in the telescope.”
For junior Lucas Walters, a philosophy major minoring in psychology, the interest in space goes back to his childhood.
“I did all sorts of space camps and science things as a kid and don’t really get my fill of nerd stuff through my philosophy class,” he says. “Astronomy is very fun and highly theoretical at times. I love thinking about the possibilities of future space travel and technology.”
The advances made in our understanding of space in recent years raises interesting questions for students, Crider says.
“What does that mean to be living in a time where we go from having just us to all these other planets? What does it mean to discover the universe was not just a big bang, it’s actually pulling itself apart now?” he says. “Astronomy and the discoveries made through astronomy have huge implications on how we look at society and ourselves.”