Oct. 10, 1996
Vol. 16, No. 3

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    Profile: Doug Duncan

    While most people consider themselves lucky to have one great job, Doug Duncan has several.

    He came to Chicago in 1992 to take an unusual joint appointment at the University of Chicago and Adler Planetarium. He was named Associate Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University -- where he would be able to continue his research on stellar evolution and the Big Bang -- and Astronomy Director at Adler, where he would focus on communicating science to the general public. He has since become head of the Ameritech Space News Center at Adler, and he recently was named the national education coordinator for the American Astronomical Society, part of a new venture for the AAS and another joint position with the University. He also can be heard regularly on Saturday afternoons as the astronomy commentator on WBEZ-FM radio's "Metropolis" with Aaron Freeman.

    But even with all his commitments, there's one place he can always be found -- at http://astro.uchicago.edu/home/web/duncan/ on the World Wide Web.

    Before coming to Chicago, Duncan was an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and he continues to use the Hubble Space Telescope in his research.

    You've got a Web site and a radio gig, you're a national education coordinator and a teacher -- in short, a communicator. What do you most try to communicate about science? I really want to teach people that science is not like broccoli -- good for you but not particularly appealing. I want to encourage a sense of awe and appreciation for things such as the origin of the universe, the formation and evolution of the sun and the earth, the nature of space and time and the search for other planets and life in the universe.

    How did this mission bring you to Chicago? It has always been very natural for me to share my excitement about astronomy with other people. The joint position at Adler and the University allowed me to get paid for something I was already doing on a volunteer basis. The emphasis at Adler of teaching astronomy hands on -- combined with the superb research at the University of Chicago -- was an offer I couldn't refuse. Also, the University of Chicago faculty members in astronomy are much more concerned and broad-minded about astronomy and physics education -- at all levels -- than at any of the other top research institutions that I know.

    I think it's terrific that the AAS has chosen to locate its national education office here in Chicago -- jointly at the University and Adler Planetarium. It's a recognition that we have a tremendous commitment to astronomy education, and science education in general, and we already have some terrific programs in place at both institutions.

    You teach a basic science course in the College, which you've said is one of your favorite teaching experiences. Why? I'm teaching Natural Sciences 101 this quarter. I love coming into a class of people who think they don't like science, because I realize it's probably just because they were taught science by rote and by memorization, the same way I was. But ask the same people if they like detective and mystery stories, and they'll probably say, "Of course!" Science can be just as much fun as solving other kinds of mysteries -- the only difference is the mysteries are on a great and grand scale, from the beginning of the universe to whatever its end may be.

    But you're not teaching works by Raymond Chandler and Sara Paretsky. How do you get the attention of non-scientists? Before the first class, I went out to Toys-R-Us and bought a dodge ball and a thousand marbles. I asked the students to pretend that a marble represented Earth and the dodge ball was Jupiter. Then I asked them, if Jupiter is 10 times the diameter of Earth, what's the relationship between the volume of Earth and the volume of Jupiter? In other words, how many marbles can fit inside the dodge ball? It's not necessarily intuitive that Jupiter is 1000 times the volume of Earth, but when you see a representation of it, it's much easier to use quantitative reasoning to figure it out. This week we are actually going to make something disappear in Natural Sciences 101 class and then scientifically explain how that happened.

    You've "traveled" millions of miles in space through your work on the Hubble telescope. Where else does your work take you? I love to travel. For the past several years, I've been leading educational vacations to the Arctic Circle to experience the northern lights and native culture. Living in igloos is something we do for fun! Three years ago I actually got to the North Pole itself. Using two Twin Otter aircraft and a fuel cache, we traveled to the North Pole, Beechey Island and on to Thule, Greenland. Beechey Island is where the famous Franklin expedition vanished while looking for the Northwest Passage last century. We saw the three graves that were discovered and autopsied in 1982. I've also spent time hiking in the Himalayas and photographing penguins in Patagonia.

    Sounds great. Can we come along with you sometime? In March 1997, I'm going to lead an educational expedition to Lake Baikal in Siberia to experience a total eclipse of the sun. Anyone who's interested in coming along should get in touch with me.

    Last question -- who is your favorite historical figure in astronomy? Galileo, no question. He was the first great experimentalist. I lived in Florence for three months, and every day I would walk past the house where he lived. That and the gelato were my inspiration.