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Wednesday, February 01, 2023

'The Cosmic Perspective’ and learning with UW-Madison astronomers

Within a room in Sterling Hall, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a group of college students prepared for their first astronomy club meeting. More than 30 people showed up for the meeting, which was an introduction and trivia night. Members of the club said they had a curiosity as to what is beyond our home planet, Earth. It’s that curiosity of what is beyond the cosmos that led so many astronomers to recognize the cosmic perspective.

The cosmic perspective is the idea that, after learning about what is beyond the Earth and the entire universe, you get an idea of how insignificant your actions as a human being are, gaining a new perspective on life. Astronomers at UW-Madison have varying degrees of interest when it comes to the cosmic perspective. One can be indifferent to how big the universe is, while one can find comfort in it, while others can become terrified by it. 

The astronomy club’s members range from stargazing enthusiasts to astrophysics majors. For the next generation of UW-Madison astronomy students, their interest in the subject began while camping under the night sky or looking through a family member’s telescope. 

“Looking through a telescope feels amazing,” Will Jarvis, an executive board member of the UW-Madison astronomy club and undergraduate student, said.

Jarvis’ expertise is in black holes and galaxies, and he is concentrating on galaxy classification. 

At the meeting, Jarvis told the story about how the Voyager mission control did not want to turn the camera to photograph Earth because they were afraid of damaging the camera by turning it towards the sun.  

“Voyager Mission Control was worried that the camera would be damaged when they swung it around and pointed back at Earth because the Sun was there as well, so it took a lot of convincing for them to make that picture happen,” Jarvis said. “Luckily we instead got one of the most famous pictures of all time.”

“Pale Blue Dot” — a photo that shows Earth from 3.7 billion miles away — is still passed among astronomers around the world.

Richard Townsend is an astronomy professor who focuses on theoretical research. He is the current chair of the Department of Astronomy at the UW-Madison.

As a child, Townsend’s grandfather had a love for science fiction novels. He showed Townsend these books at a young age, which provoked his interest in the possibility of what was beyond Earth. Townsend and his grandfather would also go outside, look through a bird watching telescope and look to the sky for certain planets. 

As for his research, Townsend focuses on theoretical or computer simulations. One of his bigger projects concerns the magnetic braking in an ordinary star. 

Most of Townsend’s work occurs in his office. He is not outside as much as you think an astronomer would be. However, during a trip to Governor Dodge State Park, Townsend had a moment to reconsider his mindset about his career. 

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“It was just one of those reset moments for me where I just stopped thinking about everything that’s going on in the world and just thought, ‘Oh my goodness, just being part of this universe is incredible,’” he said. “There are day-to-day things that can absorb all of our attention, and sometimes you know we go around with our heads bowed looking at the ground.”

UW-Madison graduate student Daniel Rybarczyk said he didn’t have one single moment of realization that led him to astronomy. Instead, he said a couple of events, such as visits to the Museum of Science in Rochester and Buffalo, New York contributed to his interest. 

How Rybarcyzk got into astronomy was different. He has had an interest in science since a young age, but Rybarcyzk never had a moment when he knew what he wanted to do.  

His research focuses on the interstellar medium, which is the dust and gas in our solar system. 

“I think Earth’s position in the universe can be humbling,” he said. “It’s understandable if many people don’t find immediate comfort in the cosmic perspective.” 

Rybarczyk thinks it’s important to recognize the social privilege that comes with the cosmic perspective. 

“I think Neil deGrasse Tyson put it well, saying, ‘But who gets to think that way? Who gets to celebrate this cosmic view of life? Not the migrant farmworker. Not the sweatshop worker. Certainly not the homeless person rummaging through the trash for food. You need the luxury of time not spent on mere survival,’” Rybarcyzk said.

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