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Supernova Searcher Has Hands-on Universe

Berkeley astrophysicist and educator Carl Pennypacker. (Image credit: NSF)

Carl Pennypacker is an astrophysicist at the University of California at Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, and is the leader of the NSF-funded Hands-on Universe Project (see a Science Nation video about the project). The project allows all-girl middle-school groups to explore the scientific world, encouraging personal confidence and the development of an interest in science. Pennypacker has always been an advocate for mixing astronomy and education; the Hands-on Universe Project has provided the combination of both, as well as an introduction to math and technology and an opportunity to explore the Universe that children otherwise may not have experienced.

In the research arena, Pennypacker's love of supernovas also inspired him to be one of the first to master semi-automatic searches for supernovas with computerized searches using CCDs, the chips that drive digital photography.

Name: Carl Pennypacker Age: 59 Institution: UC Berkeley Field of Study: Astrophysics and Science Education

1. What inspired you to choose this field of study? I always loved the stars and the sky, and was fascinated by how they have influenced life on earth. I really got excited when I learned we were all made from supernova debris, and how all humans are connected to each other through the stars. I also devoured science fiction, and just loved the potential of exploring other worlds and finding other life around the cosmos.

2. What is the best piece of advice you ever received? My grandmother and my parents always emphasized I could do anything I wanted, as long as I worked at it. This has blessed me with a huge sense of optimism, and hopes for my modest abilities to help make the world a little better of a place. But I also hope to spread this wisdom to my students around the United States. I grew up in a time of scientific and technological optimism — we have learned since then about wiser use of science and technology. I think we need that spirit back, as almost certainly intelligent decisions and actions by all of us, including our children, will be key for the continual advancement of all peoples on the planet. But we can do it!

3. What was your first scientific experiment as a child? Geez – I think it must be something to do with ants or reptiles. In retrospect, I was in many ways not very reflective, and had too many ants in my pants (as we say) to develop many skills in science. But I loved science at school, and math too. One of the high points of my elementary school education (with "new math") was the proof that the square root of 2 was not a rational number. This seemed so fascinating to me. I also liked the construct and view of the world that science provided. I think I was more of a "theoretical" scientist as a child, but as I got more tools as I grew older and went further in my education, experimental physics became my love.

4. What is your favorite thing about being a researcher? What I like is the excitement of learning new things, of talking and working with good collaborators, of designing some hardware or software (a piece of such a system, as astrophysics is very collaborative these days), seeing things work, having that sense of adventure and knowing things not many people do; of sharing science with my friends, to be able to listen to a news story on any science activity and think critically about things, to see the hope for humans in many areas — energy, education, medicine, agriculture, water conservation, feeding the planet. Science will tell us how to do it, so being a researcher and educator makes me feel part of the good work of humanity.

5. What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be an effective researcher? I think one should be curious, learn to listen to people, learn to work with people, be eager to fill in holes in one's understanding and change "careers" every few years, and see new opportunities and figure out how to bring them to life, etc.

6. What are the societal benefits of your research? I think humans need to understand research, because in some ways, human life on this planet is a great big experiment, and we need to be able to understand data and their interpretations in order to fix things. Will the human experiment succeed? That is, huge questions on climate, and items I mentioned above, really will be solved by people who understand science.

7. Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? My undergraduate and post-graduate advisor Richard Muller was a huge, positive influence on me. Also, Luis Alvarez, whose group I was in, and knew pretty well as an undergraduate and post-doc, was a tremendous teacher and had a way of doing physics that I think people should try to learn from. My Ph.D. thesis advisor, Costas Papaliolos put up with my slow learning, and was a brilliant, quiet, amazing, gentle, patient, and skilled teacher and scholar. Finally, Eugene Commins was one of my undergraduate professors who, although I was one of many eager students in his classroom, I felt a profound and vital connection to. He inspired me a lot. And many other teachers and researchers seemed able to inspire me, too. Edward Purcell, who discovered Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, was my teacher on a reading course in graduate school, and we wrote a small paper together. (NMR is the basis of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), one of the most powerful diagnostic tools in medicine.)

8. What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most? I think it might surprise people that in fact we do, in many ways, know so little about our Universe. There is so much out there to discover, and although we know a lot, we still have a long ways to go to get to much deeper truths.

9. If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? I have nice pictures of my wife Susan and my children there, which I adoringly look at each day. These would be what I would save.

10. What music do you play most often in your lab or car? I am a little weird, as I hear tunes and then I want to make these things I hear into more complete tunes. There probably is a name for this disorder. But I seem to be able to do a modest bit of composing (I play my brain, I guess), and some of it has succeeded, I think. Please see: