Prof. Shane Larson, who now holds a joint position between the Northwestern Dept. of Physics and Astronomy, CIERA and the Adler Planetarium was recently elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society for his work in public education and outreach:

“”For impacting science and society through the integration of public engagement and research, and for empowering generations of future scientists by his example.”

You can follow his exploits as @sciencejedi on Twitter

Your chair (Heidi Schellman) knows Shane through her Northwestern days and asked him to bring us up to date on what he’s been doing since then.  We hope this will be the first in a series of Alumni profiles.

Shane Larson and his daughter Kate in Utah with his 16" Dobsonian telescope. Much better seeing in Utah than Illinois unfortunately.
Shane Larson and his daughter Kate in Utah with his 22″!!! Dobsonian telescope. Much better seeing in Utah than Illinois unfortunately.

Who are you?  What do you do both scientifically and for outreach?

Shane Larson: I got my BS in Physics at Oregon State in 1991.  I did my masters and my PhD at Montana State University (1999), then postdocs at JPL, Caltech, and Penn State. I was a professor for two years at Weber State University starting in 2006, then I was at Utah State University where I was tenured in 2013. For the past two years I’ve been a member of CIERA (Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics) at Northwestern University, and also a member of the Department of Astronomy at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

I’m married to a PhD astrophysicist (Michelle). We have a 9-year old daughter (Kate), and three cats (Sierra, Xeno, and Lyra — yes, I’m the “crazy cat man” in the family!).

My research is in gravitational wave astrophysics; I was trained originally in classical relativity, but my interests and work lie at the boundary between gravity and astrophysics. Most of my physics friends call me an “astronomer” and most of my astronomy friends call me a “physicist” so it all works out perfectly, because they all think they can talk to me about the science that flows back and forth across the divide between the two disciplines.

My primary research is on ultra-compact binary star systems — binary stars comprised of two stellar remnants (white dwarfs, neutron stars, or black holes) in orbits roughly 1000 seconds long. This are excellent sources of gravitational waves (many systems are already known), and will be observable by future gravitational wave detectors in space. What my group is most interested in is what the detection of a handful of these sources can tell us about the entire population of remnants that fill the stellar graveyard of the Milky Way — these binary star systems are one piece of the fossil record of the stellar evolutionary history of the galaxy.

I do a lot of different outreach things. I blog regularly at on a variety of topics in science. When I was at Utah State University, I helped create and directed a program called “Science Unwrapped” which is a monthly lecture series coupled with face-to-face interactions with scientists and science activities after the lecture. The purpose of this effort was to bring a strong human dimension to our work as scientists. It was amazingly successful — from 2009-2013 we hosted 36 events with a total attendance of almost 12,000 people!

In my role at the Adler, almost all of my activities are public facing. Our professional astronomers spend time out in the museum every day talking with visitors and answering questions. We also do special events; one of my favorite things I get to do is watching science or science fiction movies here in Chicago, then answer science questions after the show for the people who came to the movie.

In addition to being a “professional astronomer” I’m also an active “amateur astronomer.” I build my own telescopes (I have a 12.5″ Dobsonian named “Equinox” and a 22″ Dobsonian named “Mariner”), and like to go to star parties whenever I can — I often go to the Oregon Star Party and the Table Mountain Star Party in Washington every summer. When I go to star parties, I almost always end up giving some kind of public lecture about astronomy and science; I’ve done about 100 talks in the last decade.

When were you at OSU and what do you remember about us?

I remember lots! When I came to OSU, I was initially in mechanical engineering, but I changed my major to physics three days after starting an astronomy class with David Griffiths. I’ve written a bit about that at my blog here:

All my classes and professors in physics are still very vivid in my mind. I had intro physics with Carl Kocher, and modern physics with Janet Tate; I had E&M with Cliff Fairchild, Mechanics with Swenson, and Math Methods with Corinne Manogue; I had Thermal with John Gardner, and Quantum with Al Stetz.

I did a little bit of research with David Griffiths on simulating impacts in aerogels (the material NASA used on the Stardust mission), and a little bit of research with Corinne Manogue on super-radiance in the Klein-Gordon equation. I spent most of my research days, however, working in Jeanne Rudzki Small’s laser lab in the Biophysics Department.  There I worked in “pulsed-laser photoacoustic calorimetry” which is scientist fancy-talk for “we shot proteins with lasers to make them unfold, then we listened to them fold back up again.” 🙂

My early exposures to teaching also came at OSU; I graded Modern Physics for Janet Tate, and I worked with Ken Krane one summer on an NSF Young Scholars grant.

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