Friday, December 12, 2008

Scientist teaches students to think as astrophysicists

By R.D. Hohenfeldt

Managing Editor, Ozarks Almanac

For many of us, the only time we think about the stars is at Christmas when we hear sermons that include the story of the Star of Bethlehem.

Dr. John L. Schmitt thinks about stars every day.

“I’m the astronomer for the university,” says Dr. Schmitt, associate professor of physics at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.

He also is the director of the MST Observatory, teaches two astronomy classes and their companion labs and conducts research in cloud physics.

Astronomy is far more than stargazing, as the students in Physics 9, the introductory course, soon find out.

“Some students are disappointed to find out that they aren’t going to learn all the signs of the zodiac and the constellations in the first two weeks of classes,” Dr. Schmitt laughs.

Moreover, the students in Physics 10, the lab that goes with the introductory course, don’t use the observatory. Instead, they use computer simulations as they become well-grounded in the mathematics, physical chemistry and forces of the heavenly bodies.

“When you talk about astronomy here, you’re really talking about astrophysics,” Dr. Schmitt says. “General Physics 9 could be called Astrophysics 101, because we’re interested in how things work.”

The advanced class, Physics 305, “is an entirely different animal,” he says. Students in that class need a solid background in higher mathematics, because one of their requirements is to construct a numerical model of a star.

Advanced students use the MST Observatory’s 16-inch telescope for some of their assignments and research.

“We ask a lot of questions about temperature and structure of a star—what happens to it, where did it come from, where is it going,” he says. “We study nuclear reactions because you don’t have a star without nuclear reactions.”

Dr. Schmitt acknowledges that the MST Observatory is in a less-than-ideal location.

“Viewing would be better 10 miles south of town, but the university built an observatory so it can be used,” he says. “That’s why it was decided to put the observatory on campus.”

The observatory is also used by the public, in addition to students.

“We’ve had school children and church groups ask to visit it,” Dr. Schmitt says. “We have Visitors Nights every semester.”

It was a university observatory that piqued Dr. Schmitt’s interest in astronomy (or astrophysics).

“I was a student at Michigan Tech, which was like this campus. It was the school of mines up there. Missouri has lead; Michigan has copper.”

As an undergraduate in, Schmitt had the opportunity to spend a summer at the observatory of the University of Michigan.

“It was a very good observatory,” Schmitt says. “It had the largest spectrograph in the world. That summer included work in optics, which I like, so it looked like a very good area to get into.”

Schmitt earned a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Michigan in 1968 and came to MST in 1974.

Although he is an astronomer or astrophysicist, Dr. Schmitt’s research has been closer to the earth. He conducts experiments and investigations into cloud physics, studying how pure vapor condenses into drops of liquid.

“I build cloud chambers,” he says. Those chambers allow physicists to simulate clouds and study their structure and changes.

It’s evident that physics includes a wide range of study and research, and Dr. Schmitt says a student who earns a bachelor’s degree in physics at Missouri S&T is well-prepared for a number of careers, including continuing study in astrophysics.

“You need to go on to a good grad school to be an astrophysicist,” he says, and MST has a cooperative arrangement with the University of Missouri-St. Louis for graduate students wanting to focus on astronomy or astrophysics.

Dr. Schmitt works with CERN, the world’s largest particle physics lab, which is located outside Geneva on the border between Switzerland and France. CERN is a French acronym, and the lab is the European organization for nuclear research, looking at cosmic rays, clouds and climate.

The Star of Bethlehem

Because he is a scientist who has a worldwide reputation in physics, Dr. Schmitt keeps his faith and his scientific research separate.

There have been several theories advanced by scientists, historians and theologians, who say The Star of Bethlehem could have been a comet, an alignment of planets or a miracle.

Dr. Schmitt says the book The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi has “one of the best-supported arguments I’ve read.”

In that book, Michael R. Molnar, who earned a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Wisconsin in 1971, advances the theory that The Star of Bethlehem was the planet Jupiter as it was eclipsed by the Moon during its move through the constellation of Aries, the zodiacal sign associated with the Jews.

Molnar says an eclipse of Jupiter occurred on April 17 of 6 B.C. when the planet, or star as ancient stargazers would have thought of it, was “in the east.” Jupiter then slowly moved across the night sky until Aug. 23 when it became stationary and “went before,” or through Aries where it became stationary again or “stood over” on Dec. 19, 6 B.C.

This, Molnar says, explains why King Herod and the people of Jerusalem did not see the Star. They weren’t astrologers. Modern astronomers also don’t see anything unusual about the movement of Jupiter, “but for ancient stargazers this configuration was truly awesome,” Molnar writes.

Dr. Schmitt says Molnar’s book, published by Rutgers University Press, can be taken seriously by scientists because it is backed up with scientific evidence.

“Evidence, we deal with evidence,” Dr. Schmitt says of science. “Simply saying, I think it’s this way, or I believe it is this way, is not enough. You have to have evidence to back up what you say. And that evidence is examined by everybody.”

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