How Undergrad Shaped My Attitudes Toward Physics

I’ve been thinking a lot about the demons that have influenced my attitudes toward science and teaching and my world line through those areas, and I’ve decided it’s time to make some public confessions. 1985 was a big year for me. I graduated from high school, Comet Halley was coming back around, and I began my undergraduate career at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as an astronomy major. I had applied to UNC-CH the previous fall and I never understood how or why I got accepted. I’ve always assumed it was simply because I completed a prescribed set of  courses for which my high school diploma supposedly showed a stamp or sticker declaring that I was “college ready.” I think the laugh was on my high school.

The only reason I even applied to UNC-CH was because at the time, it was the only college in North Carolina offering an undergraduate major in astronomy. Appalachian State University offered, as I recall, a minor but that wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted to major in astronomy. UNC-CH was the only college to which I applied, and I confess that it was, at the time, the only college offering a course in celestial mechanics. I had decided that if didn’t get accepted at UHC-CH I would apply to App. I had been interested in astronomy since at least fourth grade. It became a trademark by which almost everyone knew me. Teachers called me “the science boy” and that would bother me now, but back then it didn’t matter. In high school, I had very little, if any, use for the math courses I was required to take. At the same time, my interests turned to mathematical aspects of astronomy: predicting rise/set times, orbital motion, celestial mechanics, ephemerides, and computation. All of my spare time was devoted to reading about mathematical astronomy and learning to program in various dialects of BASIC. I learned how to create planetary ephemerides from orbital elements. I learned about vector methods. I learned about angular momentum. I learned how to predict sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset times. I wrote software to do all this. I even wrote code on a Commodore VIC-20 to reproduce parts of the Astronomical Almanac; parts of that code survived to appear in my book. (Note that Amazon incorrectly lists the publication date as 1998. FEC was actually published in early 2000 and has a 1999 copyright date. Also, one of the two reviews on my books page isn’t even for my book. Amazon has refused to correct the errors. Yes, this is a shameless plug.) I think the most important thing I learned was that mathematics and science as taught in high school, bore essentially no resemblance to how it was used outside of high school. I could compute asteroid orbits so who cared whether I’d memorized a bunch of trig identities?

So, I showed up at UNC-CH in August 1985 (I arrived early for marching band camp) ready to immerse myself in academia and “real” astronomy. Before the first day of class, I spent tens of hours in the math/physics library poring over the classics in astronomical literature. I touched and read books I’d only seen referenced in other books. So one day, I went to introduce myself to the astronomy faculty (I had previously met Wayne Christiansen and Morris Davis that summer). I told them I was an astronomy major (later on, many of these same people would try to talk me out of majoring in astronomy, which I never understood) and that I was eager to participate in any research projects going on, especially anything related to Comet Halley (remember this was 1985). They told me two things that I found strange. One was that there was no research going on in the department that I would be interested in. The other was that I might be interested in joining the local astronomy club, which wasn’t affiliated with UNC-CH but nevertheless met there. The first thing was puzzling to me, especially since UNC-CH’s information for potential students boasted almost entirely about its research activity. Yet, I was told there wasn’t any “that I would be interested in.” Those words have lingered in my mind since the fall of 1985 and I will never forget them. I attended one astronomy club meeting, but can’t even recall anything about it other than meeting Rodney Jones, a PhD astrophysics student doing research with Bruce Carney on RR Lyrae stars in globular clusters. I’ve tried finding Rodney over the years but he seems to have vanished.

Now, you have to understand that I was pretty clueless back then. I believed them when they told me there was no research going on. Who was I to question them? What I didn’t know, and didn’t discover until near the end of my undergraduate years, was that they were lying through their teeth to me. Of course there was research going on, just not anywhere locally. Professors were going to Kitt Peak and certain undergraduate students were going with them. No one ever asked me to get involved with research, so I assumed that research wasn’t important. Heck, the signal was quite clear as far as I was concerned.

Fast forward to fall 1988, the beginning of my senior year, and my thoughts turned to what I would do after graduation. That’s when I discovered that many of my fellow students had been involved in some sort of research with the same professors who had told me that “there was nothing going on.” My eyes began to open and I began wondering whether or not I’d been duped. I began questioning things, and wasn’t getting any satisfying answers. There were three professors with whom I’d spent most of my time: Morris Davis, Alan Schiano, and Bruce Carney. With his background in celestial mechanics and computing and with his contacts at the U.S. Naval Observatory, Dr. Davis was royalty to me and I felt privileged to be in the last section of celestial mechanics he ever taught and I aced the class. I never took a class under Dr. Schiano (who also seems to have mysteriously vanished) but he was nurturing and was particularly approachable to undergraduates. I took no fewer than three courses from Dr. Carney. I convinced myself I learned from him. Yet, sometime in the spring of 1989 he looked me in the eye and said, “Joe, you’ll never be a scientist or make it to graduate school, but you’ll be a pretty good teacher.” This was the man who let me run public nights with the grad students at Morehead Observatory (in the same building as Morehead Planetarium). This was the man from whom I took my calculus-based astrophysics courses, galactic astronomy (a graduate course…first time ever offered at UNC-CH…Physics Today editor Stephen Benka was a PhD student in that same class with me), and stellar atmospheres (again, the first time it was ever offered at UNC-CH). His words have never left me, and that by itself has shaped my view of me, what I do, and how I do it. Sometime in the mid 1990s, I emailed Carney and asked him what he saw in other students that he never apparently saw in me (one of those fellow students is now a professor at a nearby university). He replied, but I deleted the reply without ever reading it. I wasn’t interested in his answer so much as I just wanted him to know his words affected me deeply.

There seems to be a strong trend these days to get undergraduate students involved in some kind of research as soon as possible. Other than padding a grad school application and getting an advisor’s name published, I’ve never understood the big deal about undergraduate research. Obviously, this is connected to my experiences at UNC-CH. I tried getting involved, but was basically told to go away and that research isn’t important, and that was that I took away from UNC-CH. But there’s another thing I’ve observed. I don’t know that many undergraduates want to do research. I’ve always been under the impression that research skills were the mainstay of a graduate program and that an undergraduate program focused mainly on “book learning” or at least mostly the classroom experience. I’ve sat through student presentations at AAS (a horrible organization I finally left after sharing a lunch table with a group of astronomy grad students arguing over whose advisor was the most prestigious…true story) and AAPT meetings where it was quite clear the student didn’t understand the topic, and therefore neither did I because the presenter should teach me something. More often than not, it seems the advisor is the person who gains the most from undergraduate research, which leads me to consider the option that pushing students into research is a political maneuver. Research is also the gateway to all manner of funding, more than anything another cv padder.

I understand that research is important and necessary for science, but I don’t think it should take the place of sound classroom instruction, especially at the undergraduate level. It galls me to see job postings demanding that the chosen candidate will have a PhD and will be expected to establish an undergraduate research program, but teaching experience is nearly always a secondary, sometimes tertiary, criterion. Duplicitous.

So I’m still quite conflicted about all this. I was told point blank at UNC-CH that research doesn’t matter, unless you’re one of the chosen ones for whom it will matter, and apparently I wasn’t and no one told me until it was too late. How does one become a chosen one? Was I lied to, and if so, then why was I lied to? Whatever the reason, I now view pretty much all undergraduate research as a trick to get the advisor’s name out there. I can’t help that, and unfortunately after twenty years I don’t see my attitude changing.

The conflict manifests itself in other ways too. I don’t know what to call myself. I used to call myself an astronomer, but my experiences in the AAS make me want to have nothing to do with that title. In the AAS, non-PhD members are not permitted to chair sessions or to participate in the actual organization in any way yet, the AAS gladly took my money ($/year) for several years. I attended a few meetings (I hadn’t yet overcome my fear of flying and was restricted to meetings within driving distance). Even PhD members are awarded privilege according to the year in which they received their PhD and who their advisor was. Okay, it’s their organization and they can run it as they see fit. I could call myself a physicist, but since I don’t make a living at a four year college or university doing research, I don’t know that I’m entitled to do that. Gary White (now TPT editor) once told me that anyone who has an undergraduate degree in physics or astronomy can legitimately be called a physicist. I don’t know that the community agrees with that. I could call myself a physics teacher, but that has many negative connotations (“those who can, do…” etc.) I’m most definitely not a researcher. I don’t know what I am. I really don’t know. It bothers me at AAPT meetings when new acquaintances ask, “So what’s your research area?” Am I less of a human because I don’t do research? Sometimes I really feel that’s the message that comes across. Expertise in research isn’t expertise in teaching. Expertise in teaching isn’t expertise in research. One can be both, but remember that there’s no teaching equivalent of a PhD although I’ve argued there should be. (Also see this and this.) So if I’m not an astronomer, a physicist, a researcher, or a teacher, then what am I? Am I an instructor? I don’t know. I just don’t know.

So with me, it’s all about the students. What’s the bottom line? The bottom line is that I will always, always try to give my students a better undergraduate experience than I had. They have something I apparently never had: an instructor who genuinely cares about the classroom experience. Furthermore, I am acutely aware that my words may affect my students decades from now. I want them to look back and think, “I’m where I am because Joe gave me a good foundation, not because he told me I could ever do it.”

So, do I need therapy?

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