Stars Align for Professor of the Year

Ron Olowin delivered his Professor of the Year address on April 16.
The collective intellectual star power of Vincent Van Gogh and Albert Einstein was on display in the Soda Center during the April 16 Professor of the Year ceremony honoring Ron Olowin.

The real star of the evening was Olowin, the College's astrophysics professor for more than two decades. His address on "Infinity and Our Nostalgia for the Stars" weaved together a wide array of topics, including Van Gogh's art and Einstein's physics.

"The breadth and depth of his interests are astonishing," School of Science Dean Brian Jersky said while introducing his colleague to an audience of more than 100 faculty, staff and students.

It's no surprise that Olowin, who studies the deep structure of the universe and has examined more than 27,000 galaxies, has a grasp of the big picture.

His discussion of Van Gogh's iconic "Starry Night" painting, however, also demonstrated his appreciation of minute details.

The position of the moon and the stars in the painting, Olowin explained, allows the viewer to determine the exact celestial moment Van Gogh depicted with his kinetic brushstrokes.

"It was June, 20, 1889 at 4 a.m.," he said, adding "There's so much information and content in an image like this - we can appreciate it on so many different levels."

Olowin's remarks focused on how astronomical discoveries have consistently challenged our existential assumptions. He spoke about 20th-century Californian astronomer Edward Hubble, who in 1923 first established the presence of galaxies beyond our Milky Way.

"We're taught in Collegiate Seminar that Galileo and Copernicus kicked us out of the center of the universe," Olowin noted, "But Hubbell really kicked us out - finding things that are not even in the same galaxy," he said.

Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity, Olowin noted, laid the foundation for contemporary astronomers' ever-expanding knowledge about the universe.

Solutions of these equations, including those by Russian mathematician Alexander Friedman, point to an observable universe is flat, finite and even has a birth date - 13.7 billion years ago.

Olowin went on to say that astrophysics is beginning to grapple with concepts such as dark energy, which suggest that perhaps only 4 percent of the universe is observable matter.

"We used to think reality was what we can taste, touch and feel - but that ain't necessarily so," Olowin said.

--John Grennan
Office of College Communications

Photo by Gabrielle Diaz '11