Astronomy Teacher Wins National Physics Prize
January 09, 2008

What were the atoms in your body doing eight billion years ago? At least some of them were inside a star that later exploded, says Foothill College Astronomy and Physics Instructor Andrew Fraknoi, who has been answering questions like that for students, on the radio and in books and articles, for more than 30 years. Those atoms, he tells students, are on loan to them from the universe, and it's up to the students to make the best possible use of those atoms while they are borrowing them. It's that kind of excitement about space--and his unique ability to share that excitement through his writing--that has won Fraknoi the prestigious American Institute of Physics Andrew Gemant Award.

A resident of San Francisco, Fraknoi was presented with the Gemant Award at the 211th annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin, Texas, Jan. 9. In addition to the invitation to deliver his guest lecture, From the West Wing to Pink Floyd to Einstein Advertising: Astronomy in Popular Culture, to the society's membership and the public, he receives a citation and a $5,000 monetary award, and is given the opportunity to designate one or more academic institutions that will share a $3,000 grant to further the public communication of physics. Fraknoi has selected Foothill College and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific as the grant recipients.

"Just when I can't imagine being any prouder of Andy, he wins another major award!," said Foothill College President Judy C. Miner, Ed.D. "Foothill College and our community have known for years what a talented educator that he is, but the prestigious honors that he has earned are wonderful validation. I hope that more students and community members will take advantage of the opportunity to learn from Andy by enrolling in his Foothill classes and by attending the free Silicon Valley Astronomy Lecture Series presentations he organizes at Foothill College."

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) award committee selected Fraknoi for "his extraordinary contributions as a teacher, a public lecturer, co-author/editor of a syndicated astronomy newspaper column, host/producer of a weekly radio show and numerous guest appearances on national TV." The committee also lauded his tremendous breadth. "His rare combination of skills has resulted in his being sought nationally and internationally as a spokesperson for physics, astronomy, the history of science, and the connection of science to all human activities."

Fraknoi's Harvard University teacher Gerald Holton, one of the great historians of physics, is a past recipient of the Gemant Award, as are Cambridge University's Stephen Hawking, author of The Brief History of Time; Columbia University's Brian Greene, whose book on string theory was a best seller and who has been featured in several TV specials; Paula Apsell, producer of the award-winning NOVA series on PBS; Einstein's biographer Abraham Pais of Rockefeller University; and two Nobel Prize-winning physicists.

"I am awed to be included among the recipients of this award, which has been won by some of the most eminent figures in the popularization of physics and its cultural dimensions," Fraknoi said. "People like Philip Morrison, Stephen Hawking and Steven Weinberg have been heroes of mine for so many years."

Fraknoi is known for his skill in interpreting astronomical discoveries and ideas in everyday language. In 2007, he was selected as California Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In 2005, his Physics for Poets: Everything You Wanted to Know about Einstein but Were Afraid to Ask course received an Innovation of the Year Award from the League for Innovation in the Community College.

The Gemant Award, named for a physicist who wrote both nonfiction and fiction, is often given for interdisciplinary work in the physical sciences. Fraknoi uses music, poetry, humor and science fiction in many of his courses at Foothill, particularly the Physics for Poets class, where students listen to parts of an opera about Einstein and read two novels influenced by modern physics. In his astronomy classes, Fraknoi reads a poem about subatomic particles from the Sun, plays excerpts from old radio dramas, and discusses rock 'n' roll songs with good astronomy--such as Pink Floyd's "Shine on You Crazy Diamond," which compares the death of a star like the Sun with the self-destructive behavior of one of the founding members of the group. He has written scholarly articles on astronomy and music, astronomy and fiction, and keeps a Web site of science fiction stories that have good astronomy in them.

In his Gemant Award talk earlier this month, Fraknoi said he likes "to show both astronomers and the public the degree to which astronomy is embedded in a larger culture, and that the interactions between astronomy and culture should not be forgotten or minimized, but, rather, celebrated." He showed examples of astronomy on postage stamps, money, advertising, cartoons, children's stories, mystery novels and bumper stickers. He discussed a 1945 British horror movie, Dead of Night, which actually influenced one of the main scientific theories of the universe, the so-called "steady-state theory". And he cited the work of nine astronomers, starting with Johannes Kepler, who wrote or write science fiction as part of their careers.

Radio listeners know Fraknoi as a frequent guest on local and national news and talk programs. In Northern California, he currently appears on the Gil Gross Show on KGO Newstalk AM 810, and was a regular on the Jim Eason Show and Pete Wilson Show on the same station. He has also been a regular guest on Forum with Michael Krasny on KQED, and is the astronomer-in-residence on the syndicated Los Angeles-based Mark & Brian Show. Nationally, he has been heard on Science Friday and Weekend All Things Considered on National Public Radio.

A prolific author, Fraknoi co-edited The Planets and The Universe, two collections of science articles and science fiction stories for Bantam Books in the 1980s. His children's book on astronomy, Wonderful World of Space, was published by Disney in 2007, and features really bad astronomy puns using Disney and Pixar film characters.

For 14 years, Fraknoi served as the executive director of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, an international scientific and educational organization founded in 1889. He was also editor of its popular-level magazine, Mercury, and founded its newsletter for teachers, The Universe in the Classroom. His resource guides of outstanding teaching materials (on topics like women in astronomy, the astronomy of many cultures, and environmental issues in astronomy) are still posted on the society's Web site.

Asteroid 4859 has been named Asteroid Fraknoi by the International Astronomical Union to honor his work in sharing the excitement of modern astronomy with students, teachers and the public.

Educated at Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley, Fraknoi has taught astronomy and physics at San Francisco State University, City College of San Francisco, Ca?ħada College, and several campuses of the University of California Extension Division. For UC Extension, he has taught large weekend programs, including "Violence in the Universe," "The Science of Science Fiction" and "Einstein: The Man & His Legacy" (the last with previous Gemant winner Alan Friedman.)

The Gemant Award is made possible by a bequest of Andrew Gemant to the American Institute of Physics (AIP). The recipient is named by the AIP Governing Board based on the recommendation of an outside selection committee appointed by the institute's board chairman.

Headquartered in College Park, Maryland, the American Institute of Physics is a not-for-profit membership corporation chartered in New York in 1931 for the purpose of promoting the advancement and diffusion of the knowledge of physics and its application to human welfare. It is the "umbrella" organization that includes many of the physical science societies in the United States.
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