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Astro superstar explores strange new worlds: Local prof voyages to realm of science fiction


Fraknoi

Foothill College astronomy professor Andrew Fraknoi retired June 30 after 25 years on campus, prompting tributes from students and colleagues who recognized not only his teaching at Foothill, but his role as a public intellectual in Silicon Valley and beyond.

Fraknoi’s courses fall into the “physics for poets” genre, aiming to make technical concepts comprehensible – and even joyful – for nonscience majors with offerings such as Einstein Without Tears. So popular were Fraknoi’s courses, Foothill sent out an email this spring warning students that it was their last chance to take one.

“There’s no one that can replace Andy Fraknoi,” said Thuy Thi Nguyen, president of Foothill College. “I think he’s extraordinary.”

The Allure of Outer Space

Fraknoi’s love for astronomy began with a revolution, an escape and a caped superhero. Only 8 years old when his family fled the Hungarian Revolution, Fraknoi ultimately found himself in New York City, readying to enter the American school system with one significant obstacle.

“I didn’t speak a word of English,” he said.

Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Comic books, word-light and picture-heavy, were his introduction to the language – and, through the outer-space origins of heroes such as Superman, to the allure of the stars. As young Fraknoi ripped through comics, then children’s books, then progressively more advanced ones, his passion for space grew alongside his English literacy.

“This isn’t just comic books – this is real,” he recalled thinking as a child, as outer space grew in his mind from a fixture of superhero backstories to an expansive field of study, discovery and exploration.

Fraknoi’s own exploration led him from a specialized “nerdy high school” in New York, through Harvard University and UC Berkeley, until he found himself, as a young professor in the Bay Area, volunteering for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Founded in 1889, the San Francisco-based ASP works to connect scientists, educators, amateur astronomers and the general public.

The volunteer gig was a humble beginning to Fraknoi’s work in advancing public understanding of astronomy.

“My office was a drawer in the filing cabinet that was labeled ‘Andrew Fraknoi,’” he said. “Whenever there was something that they wanted to me to do, they would put it in the drawer.”

He credits this time with ASP, of which he later became executive director, as a major influence on his dedication to making science both accessible and thrilling to nonscientists.

“So often, science is portrayed in such dry and technical ways that the public can’t appreciate what astronomers are excited about,” Fraknoi said, creating a need for scientists who can not only inform the public about advances in human understanding of the universe, but also get them jazzed about it.

Physics for poets

This mission has translated to Fraknoi’s teaching, said former student Hal Plotkin, who went on to become president of the district’s board of trustees, then an education policy adviser under President Barack Obama.

“It was like walking into an episode of ‘Star Trek,’” Plotkin said of his first class with Fraknoi, who was then a new and unknown professor at Foothill. “From the first 10 minutes of his first lecture, I knew it was a class I wasn’t going to want to miss.”

A history major himself, Plotkin said he never felt alienated despite receiving an F – followed by help during office hours, and a burgeoning friendship – on his first paper outline in Fraknoi’s class.

“Many physicists I’ve come across talk to the uninitiated in ways that leave their audiences feeling ill at ease or even humiliated,” Plotkin said. “Andy always treats his students with respect and uses … a positive approach that gives students the confidence that they can take on subjects that they might have thought were beyond their reach.”

In the classroom, Fraknoi’s lessons drew connections to students’ lives and interests to bring the material alive. One lecture took students through the birth and death of stars, whose explosions formed heavy elements from simple ones, recycling over and over the matter that eventually formed life on Earth, culminating in asking students, “What were the atoms in your body doing 8 billion years ago?”

Other lessons tackled pseudoscience such as astrology, training students to ask skeptical questions of science, media and politics alike. Another employed the song “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” to draw parallels between rock stars and real stars, comparing Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett’s breakdown and withdrawal from public life to the way in which stars collapse into dense remnants known as white dwarfs.

“My aim was always to show how science … was relevant to students’ daily lives,” Fraknoi said. “You might think, my goodness, astronomy is the most abstract and removed deal. It’s all out there in outer space and I have enough trouble here on Earth!”

Humor, he said, is another key aspect of his pedagogy.

“As long as they’re suffering, they might as well laugh,” he said of students.

Image Credit: NASA/ESA/HEIC and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Lifetime of contributions

Outside the classroom, Fraknoi has authored and co-authored multiple books, including a free open-source astronomy textbook and several children’s books; been a frequent guest on local and national radio programs; organized the Silicon Valley Astronomy Lecture Series; and held workshops for teachers and young astronomers.

“(We) teach them how to be better at public outreach, not to be so technical and nerdy,” Fraknoi said. “They don’t learn that in grad school – in grad school, they’re taught to speak the jargon.”

For his lifetime contributions to the fields of physics and astronomy, Fraknoi received the 2007 California Professor of the Year award from the Carnegie Endowment for Higher Education, the Annenberg Foundation Award from the American Astronomical Society and the Andrew Gemant Award from the American Institute of Physics. He was selected as a fellow of the California Academy of Science and an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. More idiosyncratically, an asteroid has been named in his honor.

This is not, however, the last the public will hear from Fraknoi, who described himself as an “incredibly beginning and incredibly nervous writer of science fiction.”

A lifelong fan of the genre, Fraknoi has had two stories published in science-fiction anthologies. An expert in the astronomy field, he takes a cheerful approach to being a beginner in the writing world.

“I have the most beautiful bulletin board of rejection slips from science-fiction magazines from around the world,” he said.

The Foothill College community, meanwhile, has marked Fraknoi’s departure with expressions of gratitude.

“I’m saddened when I think … that this chapter’s coming to a close,” said Plotkin, who returned to take Fraknoi’s classes long after moving on from Foothill, even slipping discreetly into the back of the room while serving as a trustee. “The public’s return on their investment in Andy Fraknoi has been astonishing. (He) was a gem. … he was regarded as kind of the crown jewel in our firmament.”

At Fraknoi’s last lecture at Foothill in the spring, Nguyen thanked him publicly for his service to the college and brought, she said, a symbolic gift: “I gave him what I believe is the most appropriate for a superstar astronomer like him: a bouquet of stargazer lilies.”

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