What got you interested in astronomy?
I was about 8 when my dad brought home a pickup truck bed full of telescopes from an unclaimed freight store. I spent a lot of time building, fixing and aligning telescopes. I had small hands so I could manipulate [the parts], but my dad was a mechanical genius. I picked up a little bit from him. We made back the money. We had two or three real nice telescopes that we would use out in the yard and from that point on, it was always something that was interesting. … Return of the Jedi was already out. Star Wars had been a big part of everything growing up, so the stars and the planets were always [of interest].
What does the Planetarium’s programming offer?
We do field trips for school kids and home-schooled groups and anyone who wants to bring a group in. They choose the shows that fit with what they’re doing in their classrooms. You give them that presentation, you show them what they can look for in the night sky and then we answer questions. CSN students take astronomy classes here, and the professors can bring up the sky and show them the concepts instead of just telling them and seeing a picture in a book.
Most of our features are devoted to space, although we have a show called River of Bears. It takes [viewers] to the McNeil River state game sanctuary in Alaska, where you can stand 10 feet from grizzly bears as they’re fishing in a salmon stream. (Astronaut ) shows the effects of space on the human body. We have shows that discuss the planets, galaxies and stars. We have shows that talk about how Earth has to be protected. We have a show (Back to the Moon for Good) about the Google Lunar X prize where private entities are competing to go to the moon.
“NASA thinks we’re 10-20 years away from knowing for certain, but it may be closer than that. It really is the ultimate question—whether we’re alone or not.” – Andrew Kerr
What gets your pulse racing?
A show for the 400th anniversary of Galileo and telescopes (Two Small Pieces of Glass) has the single-most spectacular beginning of any planetarium show—it gives me chills and goose bumps every time. It’s got a soundtrack by the London Symphony Orchestra, and it runs the camera through a telescope and opens up to the sky with the whole glittering star field and Milky Way galaxy. It’s an incredible sequence that packs such a visceral feeling.
After visiting the Planetarium, where do you recommend students go next?
The next step is to read everything you can get your hands on and find that special aspect that you want to chase. In the Southwest we are blessed. You don’t have to go very far to find interesting things. If you get just outside the Valley’s bowl, you can get skies that are so dark that you can see the Milky Way in all its glory. You can go to Palomar Observatory (near San Diego), you can go to Griffith Observatory (in Los Angeles), you can go to the Space Shuttle (Endeavour, in the California Science Center in Los Angeles), you can go to Lowell Observatory (in Flagstaff), you can go to Kitt Peak National Observatory (near Tucson)—all within a day. You can buy a good telescope for $300 that will show the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, the craters on the Moon. It will take you as far as you’re willing to let it. Instead of putting limits on yourself, you have to push those limits and find out just how far you can go.
What question do you hope to see answered in your lifetime?
Life. Is there other life out there? NASA thinks we’re 10-20 years away from knowing for certain, but it may be closer than that. It really is the ultimate question—whether we’re alone or not. From somebody who’s studied physics and astronomy my entire life, I just don’t believe that we’re alone.
Is there any UFO theory or conspiracy that gives you pause?
With the laws of the universe as we know them, it would be nearly impossible for other beings to visit us. If they can visit us, that means they have discovered ways of going beyond the laws of physics as we know them, and that would be exciting as well. If they are coming all this way, they are not abducting people, they are not probing them. They wouldn’t need to; their technology is so advanced.
Is it possible aliens have visited Earth, Men in Black style, and the government is hiding? Anything is possible. If that is the case and one of them is reading this, stop by my house and give me some piece of technology so I can make a billion dollars off it and we can advance this human race.
The Big Bang Theory—a service or disservice for nerds everywhere?
Oh, it’s a huge service. It’s a great show. I don’t watch it very often, but my wife loves it. It hits a little too close to home for me—I knew all those people in real life. There’s a little bit of discomfort to it, and it’s kind of like holding a mirror up to yourself . … Pop culture is the way science is devoured by the public, and so that’s a good thing—especially when they get it right. And a lot of it is done right.