Exclusives: Raising Kate
PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
27 , 2002:
Rubbing shoulders with stars and dwarfs and ET
By Kate Swearengen 02
semester Im taking Astrophysics 203: The Universe, and it
may already be the best class Ive 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. Its a tag team approach to astrophysics,
and so far, its 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 dont know much about the other two professors, because they
havent lectured much yet. My initial impression is that Professor
Strauss seems to be quite taken with giant, exploding stars. "I
think its 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 Einsteins 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 didnt 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.
Im not one of those people. In fact, I have to admit that
Ive 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 theyre
really wearing space suits. For a week in the spring, these kids
hole up in a classroom and pretend that theyre 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 wouldnt get into
As is the case in most math and science courses at Princeton, a
significant portion of ones 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, Im 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, hes 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.
Ive 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 Ive 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