Honors astronomy faculty makes an expanding universe feel a little smaller

 
  • Martin Ratcliffe, adjunct professor in the Dorothy and Bill Cohen Honors College, teaches students that space and the people who study it aren’t all that far away.
  • Although space and cosmology are complex subjects, Martin teaches them with everyday people in mind using simple methods like analogies and visuals.
  • His classes invite students to directly observe space objects and witness how the universe works through telescopes.
  • Martin is collaborating with Bethel College to use their 16” rooftop telescope to develop more research opportunities for WSU students.

“You want the Moon? Just say the word, and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.”

That’s a classic quote spoken by Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, in the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life.

One Wichita State professor does it for students every week.

Martin Ratcliffe, adjunct professor in the Dorothy and Bill Cohen Honors College, teaches students that space and the people who study it aren’t all that far away.

“Science, in many ways, is remote to people, but it’s a subject practiced by real people with real lives. I try to bring some of that humanity to the story,” Martin said.

Martin has a keen interest in staying up to date with modern astronomical research. Sometimes he talks to his students about scientists he has met at conferences.

 

Martin's campsite tents on the mountains of Chile stand illuminated against a vividly dark sky. Courtesy: Martin Ratcliffe

Martin's campsite tents on the mountains of Chile stand illuminated against a vividly dark sky. He frequently travels around the world to work in planetariums and witness astronomical events. 

 

That’s two degrees of separation between students and leading scientists like Space Shuttle astronaut John Grunsfeld. Martin met Grunsfeld at a conference and witnessed his 2009 launch on the shuttle “Atlantis” to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

If a student wants to contact Grunsfeld or another astronomer, Martin will gladly give them an email address.

“They have a passion too, and they’re not locked in an ivory tower. They have breakfast and they shower in the morning. Then they go to work and try to figure out why particles have mass,” Martin said.

No big deal.

Martin makes the world a little smaller for students, but through his classes “Dynamic Universe” and “Big Bang and Black Holes,” he instructs that the universe literally gets bigger all the time.

Some form of energy pushes galaxies away from each other at an accelerating rate, but we can’t see it. Cosmologists and astronomers simply call it “dark energy.”

It’s far from simple.

“Here I am at a university teaching cosmology, which is a very complex subject, to people who may not have a science background. That’s what I enjoy – teaching that subject in a way that everyone can understand.”

 

An image of the 2019 total solar eclipse in totality, taken from Chile, courtesy of Martin Ratcliffe. Courtesy: Martin Ratcliffe

Martin travelled to Chile earlier this year to witness the total solar eclipse. He enjoys takes and processes his own photos of astronomical events and objects. 

 

One would think that teaching concepts like the expansion of the universe would require advanced math and theory.

“I use analogy. I use descriptions. I use visuals that hopefully make people feel like this is totally above their heads – literally – but is something that we can understand using basic principles.”Martin uses other methods that he learned during introductory cosmology courses at the University of Chicago. The courses were designed to spread cosmology information farther afield.

His teaching style isn’t only for students’ benefit.

“I simplify it for a reason because I can’t teach the complex stuff either.”

Martin avoids diving into relativistic physics. He leaves that to researchers and encourages students who want to learn more to visit the Physics Department.

He hopes that students are able to realize that by applying simple principles, they can understand how the universe works and how it originated.

It’s not just conjecture. It’s scientific and observable.

During one class session Martin took the class outside to view Venus in broad daylight. People walking by stopped at the sight of 20 students pointing straight up in the sky.

 

The North American nebula (NGC 7000) in the constellation Cygnus, is a large cloud of gas in space. Courtesy: Martin Ratcliffe

Martin captured this image of the North American nebula (NGC 7000) in the constellation Cygnus through his 14-inch backyard telescope. He hopes that through a partnership with Bethel College, WSU students will be able to remotely use their rooftop telescope to capture images similar to this one. 

 

“The height of human achievement is to put together a model of how the universe works,” Martin said. “Not just a model that is the thinking of the mind, which is how we’ve done it in the past. That’s how philosophers brought that model of the universe around. This is model is supported by direct observation.”

Direct observation is Martin’s game. He owns his own telescope, a 14-inch reflecting telescope mounted on a computer-controlled mount. It’s housed in a shed in his backyard.

At least once during every course he instructs, Martin invites the whole class over to view objects in deep space, from nebulae to galaxies. The shed’s roof rolls off to let the telescope absorb starlight.

Martin is also collaborating with Bethel College to use their 16” rooftop telescope to develop more research opportunities for WSU students.

He and the college have completely restored the telescope with new stabilizing equipment and computer controls, so Martin and his WSU classes will be able to remotely use the telescope from campus.

“If you want to know how we know the universe works just as an interest and background to expand your knowledge, come to the Honors College and I’ll teach it,” Martin said.

 

Martin Ratcliffe instructs students in an honors research group studying variable stars

Martin Ratcliffe advises an Honors research group studying variable stars. Beyond this group, Martin instructs Honors "Dynamic Universe" and "Big Bang and Black Holes" classes.

 


  

In addition to his work as an adjunct faculty member at WSU, Martin works for the planetarium software company Sky-Skan. He came to Wichita to direct the construction of the Cyberdome Theater at Exploration Place, and stayed here as a planetarium director. Martin also does astro-imaging with his telescope, and travels across the world to capture rare astronomical sightings such as the 2019 total solar eclipse in Chile.


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