At Home in the Milky Way

Recently I was fortunate to have the opportunity to return to my high school to offer planetarium shows on three consecutive nights. I did basically the same show each night but working without a script, things varied a bit night-to-night. The show was about the Milky Way as a galaxy, one of my favorite topics and something I will reprise in about seven weeks for visiting prospective students and their families. In part, I like talking about the Milky Way as a galaxy because I am drawn to the people of the story. We can talk about Henrietta Leavitt discovering the variable star period-luminosity relationship that could then be used by others as a step in measuring our galaxy and eventually distances to other galaxies. However much the particular occasion allows we can talk about Vesto Slipher, Harlow Shapley, Heber Curtis, Adrian van Maanen and Edwin Hubble. When I teach an astronomy course I think of the course as a narrative and these are compelling characters with the wonderful wisdom and warts that make all of us human.  And that is, again in part, the reason for the stories – to remind students that science and the quest to understand the universe is a deeply human activity done by real people living real lives. Also, this story is an essential part of our developing grasp of the mind-numbing vastness of the universe. Still, I remind the students, as the universe grows and we become a smaller and seemingly less essential part of it, remember that this story we are telling is a great one; it is our story. That we are able to tell such a coherent, self-consistent tale of something so beyond our place here on this little planet is testament to human industriousness and ingenuity if ever anything was.

So there I was talking about the Milky Way as a galaxy in the L. S. Noblitt Planetarium at Columbus East High School where I had last been 32 years earlier when physics teacher Bob Kasting invited me to work in the planetarium as a high school senior. It was he who invited me back for this reunion of sorts.  Surely, my story would have been different if not for the start I got there in that physics laboratory and that planetarium. I often tell people that my job feels like a scam. I get to make a living studying the universe and talking to people about what the universe is and how it works. That started the right way under Kasting’s tutelage in the Noblitt Planetarium all those years ago. Being back there it was impossible to be anything but grateful for that start and the mentoring I got. There has been much of that along the way, from research advisors who helped me channel raw enthusiasm into something more useful, faculty members who helped me recognize the joy of working with students and the possibilities a small college could offer, and administrators who showed me that it is possible to make a meaningful difference by building the right environment for and attitude toward what we are trying accomplish. I suppose as much as anything that is what the holidays and the transition to a new year are about, reflecting on our personal and collective journeys , remembering all those who have helped along the way and figuring out how we can do a little more to help others. Perhaps the oddest part of my personal reflection was realizing that the time since my high school planetarium days spans about a third of the total time since we figured out our place in the Milky Way and the Milky Way’s place as a galaxy in a vast sea of galaxies but we won’t get into that now.