Web Exclusives: Raising Kate
a PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (kswearen@princeton.edu)

March 27 , 2002:

Space time
Rubbing shoulders with stars and dwarfs and ET

By Kate Swearengen ’02

This semester I’m taking Astrophysics 203: The Universe, and it may already be the best class I’ve taken at Princeton. No joke. The lectures are lively and easy to understand; the amount of assigned reading is just right. And, well, the class just makes me feel smarter.

The course is taught by three professors: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael Strauss, and J. Richard Gott. It’s a tag team approach to astrophysics, and so far, it’s worked well. A couple of years ago, People magazine voted Professor Tyson "Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive." He moonlights as an assistant professor in the astrophysics department, but his main job is in New York City, where he is director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. Not surprisingly, he gets a lot of mail. A while back, someone sent him a postcard with a picture of the moon on the front. On the back were these words: "When I gaze upon the moon at night, it makes my beer taste better than it ought to. What should I do?"

I don’t know much about the other two professors, because they haven’t lectured much yet. My initial impression is that Professor Strauss seems to be quite taken with giant, exploding stars. "I think it’s kind of humbling, and sort of awesome, that everything around us has gone through thermodynamic reactions in the supernovas," he said. Professor Gott is supposed to be some sort of genius. Someone told me that he discovered a new corollary to Einstein’s theory of relativity, but I have no idea what that means.


Professor Tyson taught the first third of the course, although Professor Strauss filled in a couple of times. On one of these occasions, Professor Tyson missed class because he went down to Florida to watch a space shuttle launch. It seems that, in all the years that he has studied the universe, Professor Tyson has never seen a launch. He didn’t get to see it this time, either, because the weather was too cold, and the launch was postponed a day. Instead of waiting around for the rescheduled launch, Professor Tyson boarded a plane, flew back to Newark, and took the New Jersey Transit to Princeton so he could get there for the 3:00 pm lecture. He made it.

Professor Tyson may have missed the shuttle launch, but he did e-mail us some pictures from Florida. One of these was a photo of himself and Buzz Aldrin posing under the front landing gear of the Space Shuttle orbiter Discovery. The subject line of the e-mail read: "Wish you were here".


There are about 250 students enrolled in Astrophysics 203. A substantial number of them are seniors seeking easy credits their last semester. Some are desperately trying to fulfill their quantitative reasoning requirements. And then there are the die-hards, the people who have actually read the books that movies like Contact are based upon, the people who are deeply and earnestly concerned with the luminosities of stars millions of light-years away.

I’m not one of those people. In fact, I have to admit that I’ve never really been interested in outer space. This can be attributed to a program at my high school called the Columbia Aeronautics and Space Administration. CASA is a program for kids who like to put on hospital scrubs and pretend that they’re really wearing space suits. For a week in the spring, these kids hole up in a classroom and pretend that they’re in a space shuttle. They get to miss classes and everything. But the worst part of the whole thing is that whenever you turn on the local public school channel, the CASA kids are there, "solving" the imaginary problems that Mission Control has cooked up for them. When I was a senior in high school, I wanted to rent an alien costume and break into CASA headquarters during their launch simulation. But my parents told me that if I did that, I wouldn’t get into Princeton.


As is the case in most math and science courses at Princeton, a significant portion of one’s astrophysics grade comes from problem sets. For problem sets, students have to do things like calculate the total amount of energy emitted by a supernova, or derive the mean distance between atoms in a white dwarf. A white dwarf refers to a star that has exhausted its nuclear fuel and not, as I had initially thought, to a member of the sprint football team.


On March 1, our class took a field trip to the Hayden Planetarium. We went to see "Passport to the Universe," a virtual tour in which every star and planet in the visible universe is faithfully recast on the planetarium ceiling. Our field trip fell on the date that "Passport to the Universe" ended its run; if we had gone to New York a day later, we would have seen the premiere of "The Search for Life: Are We Alone?," narrated by Harrison Ford. Although his voice is soothing and mellifluous, I’m not sorry that I missed the new show. I mean, come on: Harrison Ford is the last person in the world who should discuss the possible existence of extraterrestrial life. For one thing, he’s biased about the subject. Everyone knows that, deep down in his heart, Harrison Ford believes in extraterrestrial life. Not the kind that may or may not have lived on Mars. The kind represented in the bar scene in Star Wars.


I’ve learned a lot of interesting facts in astrophysics — among them, that humans emit infrared light, and that the Earth will be a charred, faceless ember in about five billion years. The best thing I’ve learned, though, is that the Milky Way is littered with our old radio broadcasts. That means that if intelligent life ever reaches our galaxy, the first things it will encounter are old episodes of Howdy Doody or I Love Lucy.

You can reach Kate Swearengen at kswearen@princeton.edu