Stars and the Universe

On February 11th, researchers at the LIGO lab at Caltech announced to the world the first observation of gravitational waves in the universe, which supported a longstanding theory of Einstein’s. It was easily one of the biggest discoveries of the decade.

I remember seeing its announcement as a push notification on my phone when it hit me; two weeks earlier, Dr. Adam Reiss had literally tipped us off about the discovery in class. February 11th was going to see a massive announcement, he said.

Let me backtrack a bit. Since last we met, I added another class to my schedule. Well, it was always on my schedule, but I figured I was going to drop it. The class is called Stars and the Universe, and it’s a survey course on the evolution of space. Ever since I had the opportunity to present a winning project at the International Space Development Conference in high school with my best friends, I’ve been obsessed with space. But I didn’t think I would have the time to fit it into a schedule that was already more credits than last semester.

Having said that, my friend forced me to sit in the first lecture anyways, and I haven’t stopped showing up since; I guess I’m keeping it. The class is taught by Dr. Adam Reiss, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011 for discovering (casually) that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. But, having said that, I just found it incredible how accessible and down-to-earth he made himself for his students. Hearing about the history of the universe and our understanding of it from someone so passionate to the bones about what he teaches is, obviously, incredible. And it’s just downright exciting to learn from someone who is so heavily involved in the very frontier of science he talks about.

Two weeks ago, he couldn’t make it to class, so instead he asked his friend to fill in for the day and talk about his work. The friend happened to be, of course, the Project Scientist of the New Horizons mission that took us through the story of how Hopkins allowed for the highest resolution images of Pluto to date. And it’s not uncommon for his own research to be pulled from on the slides to help clarify some of the concepts we’re learning about.

For someone who’s collected so much global acclaim you’d think he would be intimidating to talk to: that his lectures would be accidentally-brilliant and laced with complex math he just assumed we would pick up on. But, instead, he starts off extremely understandable and slowly brings the entire class through numbers and specifics until we really get the concepts for ourselves; it’s like he’s walking us through his own thought processes.

I like to tell my tour groups that Hopkins faculty are teachers before they are professors, and every course I’ve taken so far has supported that. I always wanted to learn from individuals who were contributing current debates in any discipline, not just reading about them. But that brought with it the daunting idea of a cold, intimidating genius of a professor that aimed his or her words way over our heads and then went back to the office. Instead, I’ve gotten driven, passionate experts in their fields who love what they do and genuinely care not about lecturing, but about teaching.

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