January 26, 2004

Reaching for the stars

By Eric Rangus

Richard Williamon is accustomed to the dark. Such is the result of being an astronomer.

Nowhere is he more at home than the pitch-black planetarium in the Math & Science Center. While many visitors might otherwise bang into seats and walls like blindfolded mice if not safely seated, Williamon glides around the room aided by not a single sliver of light.

Most of the time.

"The handrails can be a problem sometimes," said Williamon, planetarium director and senior lecturer in physics, referring to the bars that surround the perimeter of the room's 56 seats. "They're hard, they're metal and they can hurt."

For 30 years, Williamon worked at Fernbank Science Center planetarium and observatory. He retired two years ago to take a full-time position at Emory, where he had been an adjunct faculty member for many years. The move coincided with the opening of the Math & Science Center, which among its many high-tech benefits boasts a planetarium and observatory.

"We have one of the best small planetariums and one of the finest imaginable telescopes to go with it," he said. "I loved the Fernbank system," Williamon said of his 500-seat former home, "but when you're dealing with huge groups it feels very impersonal. I really love the Emory planetarium; it's rather like a 56-seat sports car compared to a 500-seat bus."

And that sports car is a doozy. The seats are movie-theater comfortable and at its center is a Zeiss Skymaster star projector, cleverly mounted on an elevator to bring it up and into action in a moment's notice. Its 39 projecting lenses beam thousands of lights onto the planetarium's 35-foot domed ceiling. Williamon can either program the projector to explain specific concepts or work it manually.

With the new facilities has come a dramatic increase in Emory's astronomy offerings. Where there once was just one introductory astronomy class, now there are two, along with advanced astronomy courses within the physics department. There also are new degree programs: a B.A. or a B.S. in physics and astronomy, as well as an astronomy minor. This is only the program's second semester, so there aren't any declared majors yet, but Williamon joked that some current physics majors might be "encouraged" to switch.

The soft-spoken Williamon has the perfect voice and delivery for narrating planetarium shows, but growing up in Clemson, S.C., he was not the stereotypical stargazer kid. Williamon said he enjoyed lying in the grass of his front yard and staring up at the sky, but he never owned a telescope.

A undergraduate physics major at Clemson, Williamon took an astronomy class the first semester of his senior year and got hooked. So much so that after entering the Ph.D. program in physics at the University of Florida, he switched to astronomy, which is where he earned his doctorate.

"Here is a laboratory that is truly big enough," Williamon said, his laboratory being outer space. "You can never run out of things to study."

His specific specialty is eclipsing binary stars--two stars locked into orbit with each other. Sometimes they pass in front of one another, causing their brightness to change. Williamon said that by measuring the change an astronomer then can determine the size of the stars. By focusing on the problem-solving aspects of the physics involved in astronomy, the subject can appeal to a wider range of students.

"It's not what people expect when they come to an astronomy class. It's often a lot better," Williamon said. "We have a chance here to dispel a lot of misconceptions, and we also have a good chance to present current astronomy--what's really going on.

"As much as anything else, my stated goal for every semester is--after they get through with astronomy--each student can pick up Discover magazine or Smithsonian, any popular periodical with an astronomy story, and understand it," Williamon continued. "It's not my goal to wind up with a bunch of astronomers. It's always good when that happens, but I like 'normal' students--the econ major or the art history major. It's always exciting for me to see students when they have the 'a-ha' moment, when they really understand something they perhaps thought was beyond what they could know."

The misconceptions Williamon spoke of come in all forms. For instance, most members of one class this semester were under the impression that a day is 24 hours long (it's actually 23 hours, 56 minutes). "We straightened that out pretty quickly," he said. The rest of the curriculum is a bit more advanced, but not over-the-top tough.

"There are ways to teach astronomy without getting bogged down in math," Williamon said. He prefers a more big-picture approach to the discipline. "Human nature dictates that most everybody who's thought deeply about it really wants to know who you are, where you are, and when you are in the universe. How do we fit in?" he continued.

"So let's approach it from that point, and let's approach it from the understanding that we don't yet have all the answers. They're still being processed. We don't even know the questions to ask at this point."

If it's not clear by now, the planetarium is not just for budding scientists. Williamon has found all sorts of ways to integrate it into the community. For instance, Williamon will give a Valentine's Day-themed planetarium presentation on Feb. 13 for the Association for Emory Alumni. He's loathe to give away some of the romantically themed stories of the evening, but one involves Orion the Hunter--one of the most easily identifiable constellations--chasing after the Seven Sisters. Venus, the Roman goddess of love (as well as a very bright planet) also gets involved, and, well, magic happens, though not necessarily to Orion's liking.

In print, the story perhaps doesn't have a lot of effect, but with Williamon's narration accompanying the moving stars on the planetarium ceiling, the experience should be a tough one to beat.

The final event on the new Charter Celebration schedule will take place in the planetarium and observatory. Friday night, Jan. 30, from 7-10 p.m., "The Rings of Saturn," will be on display during an open house that will feature the sixth planet from the sun as it makes a close path to earth. Weather permitting, a live photo of Saturn (taken through the observatory's 24-inch reflector) will be beamed onto the planetarium ceiling. Visitors will be able to look through Emory's telescopes themselves as well as be treated to a Saturn slide show.

Williamon and other members of the physics department will be on hand to answer questions. A similar event in August featured viewings of Mars and drew more than 1,000 visitors to the planetarium.

"We were busy the whole night, but it never felt crowded," said Williamon, adding that he'd be ecstatic if those numbers were duplicated this week. "If it's clear, we'll see rings, gaps, stripes, a storm or two. If we're lucky we can catch a moon in there, too," he said, sounding suspiciously like a starstruck kid.