In Memoriam: Ron Olowin

Dedicated to Wonder

Professor Ron Olowin devoted his life to understanding the cosmos, drawing star-strewn connections between scientific observations, religion, and human culture. Olowin, who began teaching at Saint Mary’s in 1987, died on Aug. 5 at age 72.

When he came to Saint Mary’s, invited here to re-establish the physics program at the College, Olowin was already an internationally known and highly regarded observational astrophysicist. Prior to his appointment at Saint Mary’s, he taught at the University of Oklahoma and served as the director of the Kirkpatrick Planetarium at the Science Museum of Oklahoma. He had conducted research at planetaria and observatories in Canada and South Africa, and also served as a research associate at the Vatican Observatory.

Olowin, who retired as an emeritus professor in May 2017, authored more than 40 articles for scientific and popular publications during his career. After arriving at Saint Mary’s he published a paper—derived from his years of research observing the distribution of galaxies in the universe—that has been cited more than 1,000 times in other scholarly works. An “Opus One,” as it’s called, is a rare achievement. He delivered papers in more than a dozen countries, which also gave him the opportunity to view the heavens from many vantage points on planet Earth.

Many alumni remember Olowin—affectionately referred to as "Dr. O" by his students—for the legendary Intro to Astronomy course, which he created upon arriving at Saint Mary’s and continued to teach for 30 years. It is meant for students who do not major in the physical or biological sciences.

“It was the most sought-after science class around,” said Lisa Moore '96, vice president for advancement. “He loved his work, inspired students, and made science approachable for those lucky enough to get into his class.”

“Any time I attended an event with alumni there was always at least one person who asked about Ron and enthusiastically recounted the life-changing experience they had had in his course,” said School of Science Dean Roy Wensley. “In 2004 Ron was recognized by the Alumni Association with the St. John Baptist De La Salle Award, which honors a faculty member who has demonstrated a personal commitment to the students above and beyond their employee responsibilities.”

Always committed to making science accessible, Olowin shared his knowledge and enthusiasm with the public, giving science talks at churches, libraries, and learning centers. His AstroNotes emails, circulated frequently to the campus community, alerted faculty, staff, and students to meteor showers, super moons, and other golden celestial opportunities.

He had a welcoming ready smile and an unshakable commitment to wonder.

“He loved that word wonder,” Wensley said. “He wanted everyone that he taught to experience wonder about the universe, to ponder what it all is. Where are we? What does it mean?” Olowin loved the picture taken of Earth by the Voyager 1 space probe in 1990, Wensley said. Dubbed “Pale Blue Dot,” the photo, shot from more than 4 billion miles away, was among the first ever photographs of the solar system. Earth is just a tiny point of light. “A small blue dot. That’s us,” Wensley said, laughing. “It’s sometimes hard for students to grasp the vastness of the universe. We’re talking about something that’s really unimaginable.” But Olowin was passionate about trying to connect the dots, see the big picture, and pass this on to everyone else, Wensley said.

“Professor Olowin was an exemplar of a dedicated teacher in the Lasallian tradition,” said SMC President James Donahue. “Lasallian teaching focuses on the relationship between the teacher and the student. Ron was able to develop those relationships, meeting the students where they were with very difficult ideas, the realities of the cosmos, and equipping them with knowledge that would grow in their understanding as they grew as adults.”

A notable element of Olowin’s Intro to Astronomy course was the 4 a.m. hike he and his students made at least once a semester to the Geissberger Observatory high on a hill above campus. Olowin knew that the students grumbled about the early morning excursion. “But once they get up there, they love it,” said Olowin, who was recognized by his colleagues in 2007-08 as Professor of the Year.

For many students this was their first deep gaze into space to see planets, stars, and galaxies not visible to the naked eye. More than anything, Olowin wanted his students to have a better understanding of and humility about their own place in a vast universe.

It was through Olowin’s will and determined efforts that the Geissberger Observatory exists at all. He applied for a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant and other financial support, and appealed to science alumnus Louis Geissberger ’53, a Bay Area dentist, to support the project. With the help of the College’s Advancement Office, they established the Norma Geissberger Observatory. Olowin sought the space, the building permits and the collaboration of the grounds crew, and oversaw the construction of the observatory where a 16-inch robotic telescope and a concrete viewing deck were installed in 2004. For Olowin the observatory served as a highly visible symbol of the serious science conducted at Saint Mary’s. And it is a setting for direct observation that most astronomy professors would sacrifice teeth to have, said Brian Hill, a member of the Physics and Astronomy Department faculty.

For his last 10 years at Saint Mary’s, Olowin was able to provide his astronomy students with the opportunity to do research using the 1,000-foot radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Olowin was part of the Arecibo Legacy Fast ALFA Survey (ALFALFA), a collaboration managed by Cornell University and funded by the NSF. Young Gaels were able to maneuver and guide a telescope that was, until recently, the largest single-aperture telescope in the world.

It’s important to note that Olowin sought to understand something far greater than the study of the cosmos and whatever can be seen with scientific instruments. All his life, beginning as a small boy in Pennsylvania gazing up at the night sky, he had wondered what it all meant. As an astrophysicist he came to believe that there are kernels of truth in the old stories about heavenly events like the Star of Bethlehem. Weaving together religion, science, and the other threads of human culture, this astrophysicist and devout Catholic sought to do what all great scientists do—connect the dots between human life on this small blue planet and the vast reality in which it spins.

“Making sense of the intersection of the astrophysical world and fundamental faith is a very difficult thing,” said Donahue. “But it’s a very Catholic thing. Science and faith are not an either/or proposition. Ideas challenge faith and faith challenges new ideas.”

“Ron's profound personal and professional commitment to the Catholic intellectual tradition has driven his work, from leading conversations on faith and science to involving students in research on extragalactic astronomy,” said SMC Provost Bethami Dobkin. “He exemplified the best of our faculty, with contributions that span intellectual achievement, excellence in teaching, and sustained engagement with the Saint Mary's community.”

Olowin’s interest in archeo- and ethno-astronomy has taken him deep into dialogue on the relationship between science and religion. He studied ancient Native American sites in New Mexico, where he took his students on Jan Term excursions to view the stars in the region’s clear, dark night skies and to investigate the artifacts of long ago astronomers.

He served as a visiting professor and guest lecturer at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) at Berkeley, teaching courses on cosmology and ecotheology. He was a member of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley and visiting scholar at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana in Rome.

Olowin was a member of the American Astronomical Society, a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and the International Astronomical Union, serving on committees in cosmology, history of astronomy and astrobiology. He was a member of the International Federation of Catholic Universities, chair of the international executive committee of the Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena and ex-president of the Robinson Jeffers (Poetry) Association.

“Ron was the consummate liberal arts professor,” said Wensley. “He devoted intellectual and administrative energy to the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, who is considered an icon of the environmental movement.” Upon his retirement, Olowin donated his extensive collection of Jeffers’ works to the Saint Mary’s College Library.

Olowin also had a deep interest in art, with a collection that included Georgia O’Keeffe’s “The Lawrence Tree,” a painting of the night sky seen from beneath a pine tree on D.H. Lawrence’s Taos ranch. It reminded Olowin of his childhood vigils looking up at the stars and pondering the mysteries of the universe.

 

“What is this thing called life? I believe

That the earth and the stars too, and the whole glittering universe, and rocks on the mountains have life …”

—Robinson Jeffers