COLLEGE STATION —
To the inquisitive mind, the mere word “astronomy” has the power to evoke endless thoughts of spinning planets, blazing meteors, vibrant constellations, distant galaxies and the inevitable series of “what ifs.”
Now, Aggies with a passion for the great unknown are better able to explore such thoughts, thanks to seven acclaimed astronomers teaching various courses and two new state-of-the-art physics buildings in their own backyard.
Appropriate in a year designated as a world-wide celebration of the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first astronomical use of the telescope, 2009 also has marked significant advances in the development of Texas A&M University’s astronomy program. Unofficially launched in 2004 when Texas A&M became a founding partner in the Giant Magellan Telescope Corporation, the program since has experienced steady progress toward its goal of making Texas A&M a top institution in national and international astronomy circles.
What began as a somewhat nebulous but lofty vision under former Texas A&M president Robert M. Gates as part of Vision 2020 and the faculty reinvestment program became a primary focus in 2006, when the university recruited international supernova and cosmology expert Dr. Nicholas B. Suntzeff to direct the fledgling program.
“Astronomy motivates enthusiasm and interest in science,” Suntzeff says. “All human societies have looked to the sky and wondered what was out there, asking questions such as ‘Are we alone?’ or ‘How did the Universe happen?’”
Suntzeff believes that an exciting astronomy program and curriculum are important, not only in the quest for Texas A&M to be viewed as a major public university, but also for students with a deep-rooted interest in the galaxy as well as those who are unaware of astronomy’s latest advances. Part of astronomy’s appeal, Suntzeff notes, is that it intrigues students with many different interests — not necessarily only those with science backgrounds.
“As a science, astronomy has the ability to attract all types of students, from those who loved the challenge of physics and chemistry in high school, to those who are afraid of anything scientific or mathematical,” he explains. “For students who are not going to be scientists and are maybe more interested in humanistic studies, we can attract them with the ‘Why are we here?’ aspect of astronomy. These questions are essential to understanding astronomy, and they appeal to them. Maybe we can even attract them back to engineering and science.”
Suntzeff says that, among the top 64 universities in the nation, both public and private, only Texas A&M did not offer an introductory astronomy course. Moreover, the limited astronomy that was taught was mixed in with the physics curriculum and taught by physicists, not astronomers.
Today, astronomy classes at Texas A&M exist in a category of their own. They are taught by actual astronomers, and the focus of the classes is more conceptual rather than dominated by the mathematical elegance of physics. Students have three relatively new courses from which to choose. Each is briefly described below:
Astronomy 101, at one time known as Physics 306, is a three-hour basic astronomy course intended for freshmen and sophomores. It is a comprehensive survey of the entire Universe and the very human history of the scientists who led us to our present understanding of astronomy.
Astronomy 102 is a night-time observational class that meets at the campus observatory to give students a first-hand look at our Milky Way Galaxy and the local Universe. Because the class continues to grow in popularity, only limited spots are available.
Astronomy 314 focuses on cosmology and extragalactic astronomy. In this more advanced course using mathematics at the level of calculus taught in high school, students will gain an understanding of the latest findings in astronomy, such as supermassive black holes, galaxy formation, the Big Bang and the strange darkness of the Universe seen in dark energy and dark matter.
Since these classes were implemented last year, registration has increased from a few hundred students to nearly 1,500 annually. In addition, a proposal for a core curriculum astronomy class featuring three hours of lecture and two hours of labs has been submitted for consideration by the Texas A&M Faculty Senate. Should the proposal be approved, the course could become available as early as fall 2010. Given the prospect of new courses, coupled with the fact that astronomy has established such a strong identity that it is now part of the department’s official name (Department of Physics and Astronomy, approved by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in September), Suntzeff expects a possible increase to 2,000 to 3,000 students per year.
Thankfully, the influx of new students coincides with the debut of two new physics buildings, the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy and the George P. Mitchell ’40 Physics Building. Together the $82.5 million buildings provide more than 197,000 square feet of classrooms, teaching laboratories, offices and auditoriums — much-needed space for a department that formerly held court in as many as 11 buildings throughout the Texas A&M campus.
The buildings’ centralized location will allow for easy access for students and enable closer collaboration between physicists and astronomers on adjustments in fundamental physics. The fact that they are situated a mere block from the Charles R. ’62 and Judith G. Munnerlyn Astronomical Laboratory and Space Engineering Building, home to astronomical laboratories and other astronomy research-related endeavors, is an added plus.
“It gives us a nice home to be together in the same place,” says Dr. Kevin Krisciunas, lecturer in physics and astronomy who also joined the department in 2006. “Right now we are spread out in three buildings, and the Mitchell Buildings give us a place to have our classes and seminars as well as to get together to discuss the latest research.”
In addition to the Giant Magellan Telescope, Texas A&M astronomers are involved in a host of other major international projects from Texas to the Middle East to Antarctica. One such collaboration, the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX), is a project involving Texas A&M and The University of Texas at Austin as well as other universities across the nation to study dark energy, the mysterious force that Suntzeff helped discover in 1998 which comprises 75 percent of the material in the Universe yet remains unexplained. Texas’ two flagship universities are partnering to build the instrumentation that will be mounted on the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, located at the McDonald Observatory in the Fort Davis Mountains of West Texas. To date, the HETDEX collaboration is on track to provide results before any of the competing dark energy projects across the nation, including some with major federal funding.
Texas A&M also is part of a team of international institutions working with the Chinese Center for Antarctic Astronomy (CCAA) to construct the first institute for astronomy on the highest point of the Antarctic Plateau, known as Dome Argus. “Dome A” is believed to be the best site for ground-based astronomy because of its unique combination of altitude, extremely cold and dry climate, and low wind speeds — critical conditions that add up to the most ideal place next to space for astronomers to establish an observatory to view the sky in infrared and generate movies of those views.
To the Texas A&M astronomy team, these elaborate projects are stepping stones, albeit big ones, to their bigger-picture purpose — ensuring that the program continues to expand and strengthen, primarily for the students.
“There has always been a calling for astronomy — always will be — and the time is right to keep moving forward to the next undertaking,” Krisciunas says. “I would assert that of all the things you could learn, like with ancient Egypt or the dinosaurs, the planets and stars are just inherently interesting.
“Most universities offer astronomy, and it’s a popular option among students. Looking through a telescope gives you first-hand feeling for the majesty of the Universe.”
Contact: Chris Jarvis, (979) 845-7246 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Dr. Nicholas Suntzeff, (979) 458-1786 or email@example.com, Dr. Kevin Krisciunas, (979) 845-7018 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or Dr. Kim-Vy Tran, (979) 862-2747 or email@example.com
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