By John Grennan
Photography by Toby Burdett
Saint Mary’s students sometimes burn the midnight oil cramming for an exam. But astrophysics professor Ron Olowin is the only teacher on campus who actually encourages them to do homework in the wee hours of the night.
At least once a semester, Olowin holds a 4 a.m. stargazing vigil at Saint Mary’s Geissberger Observatory in the hills above campus so his Introduction to Astronomy class can view planets, stars and galaxies invisible to the naked eye.
“The students complain about it at first,” says Olowin, 62, a faculty member for 20 years who was named the 2007–08 Professor of the Year in May. “But once they get up there, they love it.”
This isn’t just pie-in-the-sky thinking from a passionate teacher with his head in the clouds. Each year, Olowin turns away science and non-science majors who clamor for one of the class’ coveted spots.
“Ron has had an impact on more than 2,000 students through that class,” says physics professor Roy Wensley. “Many say it’s one of their fondest memories of Saint Mary’s. Learning about the stars — and what they say about who we are and where we are — is something that sticks with people for a lifetime.”
Olowin arrived at Saint Mary’s after completing his astrophysics doctorate at the University of Oklahoma. He and his wife, Mary, live in Lafayette and have two grown sons and a daughter in college.
Before teaching, Olowin was a research astronomer at the Royal Observatory in South Africa and director of Oklahoma’s Kirkpatrick Planetarium. His travels have taken him to high-powered telescopes in Chile and the Soviet Union. He’s also given presentations at astronomy conferences in Oxford, Paris and Moscow.
While his astronomy work relies on cutting-edge optical technology and computers, he’s well-schooled in the role that the stars have played in cultures as ancient and varied as Aristotle’s Athens and the Pueblo Indians’ Chaco Canyon. He recently led a Jan Term course in New Mexico on the intersection between archeology and astronomy in Pueblo culture.
Closer to home, Olowin frequently gives astronomy lectures to civic groups and schools throughout Contra Costa County.
“He’s a captivating orator,” says Tom Scarry ‘07. “He inspires all of his students — not just in astronomy, but in other subjects as well.”
Those other subjects include art. Olowin collects paintings and artifacts from different cultures. Georgia O’Keefe’s “The Lawrence Tree,” a painting of the night sky seen from beneath a pine tree on D.H. Lawrence’s Taos ranch, hangs in Olowin’s Galileo Hall office.
“It reminds me of the times when I was a boy and I used to lie in a sleeping bag in my backyard (in Erie, Penn.) and look up at the stars,” says Olowin, who wanted to be an astronomer since he was 7.
Olowin’s interest in art led him to help organize exhibits at the College’s Hearst Gallery, such as the 2000 “Diamonds in the Sky” show featuring Hubble telescope images and the 2005 exhibit on “Perceptions in Art and Science: Different Faces, Same Truth.”
“He has so many wonderful ideas,” says gallery director Carrie Brewster. “He brought in things that I wouldn’t have thought of or even known about.”
The gallery isn’t the only place outside the science buildings where you’ll see Olowin on campus. He’s also a regular presence in the Religious Studies Department, where he has taught a course about the ongoing dialogue between science and religion and on the origins of the universe.
“The school has done a lot of things to bridge physics and religious studies, like the student-sponsored Katie Springer Forum on Science and Religion,” says Olowin, a devout Catholic who is a visiting professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.
Of course, the most enduring emblem of Olowin’s presence is the College’s observatory. Starting in 1997, Olowin applied for grants, persuaded science alumnus Louis Geissberger ‘53 to support the project financially, obtained building permits and called in favors from buildings and grounds to get the project going. Today, the observatory includes a robotic telescope and a concrete deck for those 4 a.m. stargazing sessions.
Olowin loves teaching beneath the stars, and is proud of the message the observatory’s dome sends to visitors when they arrive on campus.
“It’s a symbol and icon for all to see that we’re doing serious science here at Saint Mary’s.”