Dr. Jay White is the incoming Executive Director of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, which is hosting the conference “Universe 2000 Expo” in Pasadena, California on July 13-19 for astronomers, teachers and the general public.
What is the Astronomical Society of the Pacific?
The ASP is the world’s oldest and largest general astronomy society. We were formed one hundred and twelve years ago here in the San Francisco Bay area, and since then we have grown to include professional astronomers, amateur astronomers and educators, as well as many interested non-scientists.
We help professional astronomers stay in contact with their colleagues, and disseminate what they do into the general population.
What got you interested in astronomy?
It had to do with a sense of place, trying to find out where I am – understanding my own little tiny niche here in the Universe. If you really start looking at where we are, we’re on a small rocky planet that doesn’t really have a very big atmosphere. We are orbiting a star that has really no extraordinary features compared to other stars. We’re in a galaxy that is itself pretty much a garden-variety galaxy.
When you start thinking about all that, you say, “Gee, I seem like a pretty insignificant creature.” But then, you realize “Yeah, but I can think about all this stuff! I can imagine this great cosmos. And just by the act of imagining it, I am starting to participate in it.”
The universe is immense, but if you can comprehend the universe, then in a sense you are even bigger.
Why is it a good idea to educate the public about astronomy?
Talk to a seven or an eight-year-old and you say, “what do you think is really cool?” They’re going to respond with probably two things. One is outer space and the other is dinosaurs.
An innate curiosity about the sky is built into all of us – there is nothing more awe-inspiring than going outside in a nice dark location and looking up at a sky full of stars. Astronomy allows you to play on a curiosity that we all have about the heavens, and then to actually teach a little bit about ourselves and our lives here on Earth. We’re saying “Hey, you’re interested in the heavens. Let’s use that interest, and let’s teach you a little better.”
Do you think this makes kids more interested in science in general?
I think it can. Today we live in such an informational rush that it’s important to educate young people in how to distinguish between what’s good information and what’s bad information, between what’s important what’s unnecessary. The interest that they have in astronomy can allow us to do that.
We might not be turning all of them into professional scientists, but at least we are instilling some sense of the scientific method in them.
Can you tell us about some of the work that ASP does to help teachers?
One very successful program that we have is Project ASTRO. It was developed originally by Andrew Fraknoi, a former Executive Director of the Society.
Project ASTRO came about because of this problem: You are an astronomer and a teacher calls you and says, ” I’d really like for you to come and talk to my fifth-grade class”. You say “Sure, I’d be happy to.”
You show up, and you have great fun with the kids. You’re there for an hour or two and you talk and you answer questions. You do a few demonstrations. And then you leave.
After you leave, the children have a vague memory of you. They’re going to remember the funny episodes that happened during the talk. They’re going to remember their friend’s silly questions. But what they’re not really getting is a good dose of learning. Andrew said, “How can we improve upon this?” And the idea he came up with was to partner classroom teachers with professional or amateur astronomers.
Let’s say I join a partnership, and I’m put with a fifth grade teacher here in San Francisco. I would first go to a scheduled ASTRO workshop with that teacher so that we get to know each other, and we see some of the things we can do in class together.
Than I agree that, on at least four occasions during the next year, I will go into that teacher’s classroom and work with him or her on activities with the students. I’m not going in just to lecture. I might make a presentation, but then I’ll sit down with the students. We’ll learn lunar phases, or we’ll make comets in class, or we’ll learn how craters were made on the moon. Then I go away. But I always return. As a result, the students and the teachers develop a relationship with an astronomer.
Over the past 7 years or so, we have created about 1,000 partnerships at 11 regional ASTRO sites all over the country. The program has been very popular, and this year in the San Francisco Bay area we are actually reaching a point where we have so many professional and amateur astronomers who are interested in participating that we’re just trying to get the word out to more teachers! *
Can you give us a sneak preview of a hot topic that will come up at your upcoming Universe 2000 Expo?
Observations within the past two years suggest that not only do we live in a expanding universe – which Edwin Hubble actually showed us early in this century – but that we live in a universe which is apparently accelerating.
For many years, we had the idea that we lived in a universe that was getting bigger and bigger and bigger. It would finally reach some maximum size and then it would slowly start collapsing and finally end a big crunch – sort of the opposite of a big bang. And we looked and looked for observations that showed that the universe might be slowing.
These new data have shown – not conclusively, but the implication is very strong – that we live in a universe that is not slowing down. It’s expansion is actually speeding up.
One of our speakers, Dr. Alex Filippenko, a professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, is going to be talking about this apparently accelerating universe and what that means for us theoretically.
This is a little reminiscent of something that happened with Albert Einstein early in this century. His original work on general relativity actually predicted that we should be living in an expanding universe. He didn’t believe that, and modified his equations a little bit so that they did not predict expansion. A few years later Edwin Hubble at Mount Wilson Observatory in southen California found evidence that in fact the universe is expanding. In the face of such strong evidence, Einstein considered his meddling with his equations to have been a great blunder on his part!
If you had a son or daughter in high school who was interested in astronomy, what kinds of courses would you encourage them to take?
First of all, English. If we can’t communicate, we can’t do science. The primary tool that we have to interrogate the universe is language. You have to know how to ask your questions. And then, once you have answers (if you are lucky!), you have to be able to communicate them to other people.
Of course, students interested in astronomy should also study math, and any science course they can get their hands on, especially physics. Physics enables you to use the language of math to describe and analyze what we see around us, and what we see in the skies.
Astronomical Society of the Pacific