Casaubon's Book

Meet the Astrophysicist

When I decided to switch over to science blogs, I told Eric that he had to go with me. We’ve talked for years about doing a project together, but have always worried that a book or something would kill our extremely happy marriage, that we’d end up fighting over grammar (he’s much more of a stickler on this than I am, which is sort of strange given our respective backgrounds). But blog posts, well, we could presumably do this together with minimal risk of homicide. So next week (this week is grading hell week for the honey) we’ll start our “Apocalyptica and the Astrophysicst” series with an exploration of how ethics and science work together when teaching environmental physics.

The name of our series, by the way, is derived from a curious observation I made after reading a lot of trashy science fiction novels involving the end of the world through various mechanisms. The observation is this – if the butler always did it in crime novels, the astrophysicist always saves the world in the end in sci fi novels. This seems to be true whether the disaster is space related or not. Thus, my apocalyptic streak informs me that it is always wise to keep an astrophysicist at hand – so I married one. I’d advise everyone to add an astrophysicist to their preps.

While you wait for our first team missive, I wanted to introduce my occasional blogging partner, hedge against zombie attacks and partner in crime of 13 years. Eric is a professor of physics at SUNY Albany. He has a BS from MIT in Physics and an MS and Ph.d from Harvard in Astrophysics, specializing in Gamma Ray Bursts. Before he took his present job he worked for the Smithsonian Institute collaborating with NASA on the Educational Forum in the Structure and Evolution of the Universe. (Translation for non-scientists – not only is he extremely hot, but he’s really smart.)

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(Proof of extreme hotness provided here, with Eli, my oldest)

Eric’s first love isn’t bench science, it is teaching, which is what brings him to SUNY. He’s non-tenured by intent – most of the tenured jobs that focus on science education, his passion, are at small private universities with affluent student bodies. Eric wants to work with larger groups, and more first generation college students. We sometimes miss the money and job security that tenure might have brought, but he’s incredibly happy in his job.

Eric has taught general physics and other classes, but generally he teaches two classes at SUNY Albany. The first is one of the University’s largest general ed classes – a history of space exploration and space science. He teaches multiple sections and has about 600 students a semester – fully one in five SUNY students comes through his class in the course of any four year period.

When I tell people about Eric’s space class, most professors think it sounds horrible – huge gen ed requirements are part of many faculty nightmares, but it is here that you manage to see how terrific a teacher my husband is. He adores this class – and his students like it as well. Not only does the class fill nearly every semester, but his extra-curricular observing sessions, which are entirely voluntary are often filled to capacity. Students even come and perform musically while a hundred undergrads do astronomical observations in the freezing cold.

Recently Phil, Eric’s extraordinary TA, sidekick and doctoral student (proof of what a good grad student really can be, and why I wasn’t a good grad student) ran one of these at 3 in the morning, to catch the peak of the Leonid meteor showers and had 100 undergrads show. I must note that this only credits Eric indirectly, with inspiring the students to attend, since Eric was asleep at the time. But Phil is like Robin to Eric’s Batman, so it counts (and I’m wondering now if I could pay Phil to drive Eric crazy by following him around and saying things like “Holy Thermodynamics, Eric!)

The astrophysicist also teaches environmental physics, and it is here that our interests overlap – Eric teaches his students the way to figure what kind of future we face – how to evaluate carbon emissions and fossil fuel reserves. But he’s found that he has to offer them more than “here’s how you do the math to show that we are screwed” – so the class explores the related ethical issue, how to explain these ideas and what the possibilities for change are.

When he’s not teaching at SUNY, Eric runs the farm with me. This is something of a stretch for a guy who was raised in apartments in New Jersey, but he’s gone from thinking this was a completely insane idea to being kind of used to it now, and realizing that it is always a bad idea to get in the way of his crazy wife when she has ideas. It helps that Eric is not into change. Once we moved here, that was all the change he needed for a whole lifetime, and he was now done, so he’s going to like it here no matter what, because anything else would be different, and thus, bad.

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(Farmer Eric operating his scythe)

Besides his many agricultural talents (reminds me of Tom Lehrer”..where he majored in husbandry until they caught him at it”), he’s a fine writer. I am a little on the wordy side (I can hear the gasps of shock from my readers now – Sharon, wordy?!?). Eric has a real gift for getting to the point concisely and clearly. I’m looking forward to having his prose kick my prose’s butt – plus the inevitable arguments and making up ;-).

Whenever someone asks me how I do it all, I always say two things. First, I don’t – my life probably doesn’t look as good as people think it does. Second, that we get along as well as we do is totally due to the Astrophysicist, who is not only an extremely fine thinker, but a seriously committed guy who does his full 50% of the work around here. Together we clean, we cook, we homeschool, we farm, and now we write – and after spending a lot of time 24/7 together, the best thing about my marriage that I can say is this – we’ve never had enough time together. It is one heck of a happy marriage, plus, when the aliens come, I’ve got me an astrophysicist, and a mighty fine one, too.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 dewey
    December 18, 2009

    Might as well dive into the shallow end here … Yup, he’s cute, all right.

  2. #2 Lise
    December 18, 2009

    Wow. What a beautiful introduction.

  3. #3 Nancy
    December 18, 2009

    He was an adorable little boy too, and I’m allowed to say that because I’m his mom:). Eric and Sharon together do make one terrific team, and I’m a lucky mom, mother-in-law, and grandma.

  4. #4 Kate@LivingTheFrugalLife
    December 18, 2009

    “I’d advise everyone to add an astrophysicist to their preps.”

    Well, shit, Sharon. Seems to me there aren’t enough of these to go around. We’ve hit Peak Astrophysicist, I suspect. I leave it to you to come up with a scheme for fair and equitable distribution of the world’s pool of astrophysicists. I know we can count on you.

    (Looking forward to Eric’s posts!)

  5. #5 Coleen
    December 18, 2009

    Its wonderful to hear a wife speak so highly of a loving, responsible husband and father. You go girl! More of these posts can’t be bad for the relationship or other people out there. Marriage can be a great thing, glad you got a good one.

  6. #6 Edward Bryant
    December 19, 2009

    As another hirsute science guy, is that cool thing with his beard/eyebrow natural? I am sooo jealous! Mine is just red and grey all mixed together-boring.

    Looking forward to the collaboration.

  7. #7 Deb
    December 19, 2009

    I love it when my science guy talks geek to me! I’m looking forward to the posts! Are you going to explain Gamma Ray Bursts now that I’ve adopted it as my new pet name for hot flashes?

  8. #8 Don
    December 19, 2009

    Okay, now we’ve seen pictures of your husband, your children, and your goats. When are we going to see one of you?
    :-)

  9. #9 Kate in NY
    December 19, 2009

    Actually, I noticed in the goat post from that other day just what a fine astrophys – heck, I can’t even SPELL it – you’ve got there, but I felt kind of shallow commenting on it. Crunchy Chicken had a recent poll – “Hot Men of Climatology.” Maybe we can add a late entry . . .

    Kate

  10. #10 ET
    December 20, 2009

    Why “Eli, my oldest” not Eli, our oldest?

    Sounds like interesting blog posts coming up!

  11. #11 Greenpa
    December 20, 2009

    accidentally put this in the comments for the previous post; may make more sense here!

    So we’re guessing Eric took a gamma ray burst to the right side some years ago? :-)
    Actually, looks like a lot more fun than my graying process- I wound up dying my beard for years; my beard grayed first, and the gray came in all weird and lopsided- not interesting looking like Eric’s.

    I hope, and am sure, the Environmental Physics is fascinating. I had a bad experience with mine- we had a course of “Physics for Biology Majors” – and I dropped out after the first month; which did not please the prof. It was all physics; from the viewpoint of a physicist- zero actual communication or relevance I could see. The prof insisted “you need this course!” and I responded, “yes, I do! But I’m getting nothing here, and it’s not getting any better.” I still regret it. Partly I already had a lot of physics- but partly also there was just a total disconnect between me and the prof.

    Of course, I had bio profs where that was true, too!

  12. #12 Sharon Astyk
    December 20, 2009

    ET, poor grammar?

    Re:Eric’s cool coloration – he has vitiligo. For those not familiar, that’s that thing that supposedly made Michael Jackson turn white (no, not plastic surgery ;-)), and the thing that means people’s hair or skin can literally turn white overnight. He’s had it since he was four – he just has no pigment on one side of his face and hair.

    I love it – I think it looks awesome, and I convinced him to grow the beard because I thought it would look so cool. On our first date, I’d just broken my glasses, and since my eyesight is beyond terrible, it was really funny. He was trying to explain why he looked this way, which nearly everyone else had asked him about, and I had no idea what he was talking about since I couldn’t see his face well enough to understand it ;-).

    Sharon

  13. #13 Sarah
    December 21, 2009

    Hmmm…in my family I can round up two physicists (one particle, one I can’t remember), an engineer, two computer scientists, an environmental scientist-in-training, a paleontologist, and a pharmacologist. There must be some sort of apocalypse they’re useful for ;-)

  14. #14 risa b
    December 23, 2009

    Sharon, I agree with with the hotness assessment! And he must have been a great kid! Will Nancy share some photo albums with us sometime? :D

    Eli’s looking great there, too!