Meet Your Professors, Episode One

by Kyla

“Students: take stuff that interests you – and find things that you can learn in every class you take.”

Dr. Greg Arkos has agreed to join the blog for Episode One of ‘Meet your Professors.’ Greg teaches physics and astronomy courses at VIU and is one of the hosts of the radio program “Not Rocket Science,” which airs on Saturdays at 1 pm on CHLY 101.7. The program covers a wide range of topics relating to science and is written, recorded, and produced by faculty in Science and Technology.

Me: Hi. First of all, do you like to be called Greg or Dr. Arkos?

Greg: Greg’s fine – we’re pretty informal here at PEA.

Me: PEA? What is that? Physics… er … and Astronomy?

Greg: Physics, Engineering, and Astronomy. PEA. Everyone always forgets the engineers.

Me: Sorry, engineers. I don’t actually even know what engineers are. Or do.

Greg: Think “Scotty” from the old Star Trek TV series.

Me: Uh-huh. I have no idea what you’re talking about. But that Patrick Stewart is pretty attractive, let’s face it.

Greg: …

Me: I’ve met a few astronomers in my time, and, well, is it true that astronomers think it’s really funny when people mistake them for astrologers?

Greg: Well, astronomers don’t really think it’s funny ‘ha-ha’, more like funny in the way you ‘laugh’ after whacking your funny bone into something.

Me: All right. Well, let’s say that there’s a student, uhm, like a history major, to pick something at random, who is basically afraid of science. Is there a way for someone like that student to brave the sciences?

Greg: First, I think that most people are NOT afraid of science. After all, we use the products of science every day, many times a day. I’ve noticed that you have a nifty iPhone, by the way!

Me: Thank you. It is nifty! It worked better when I paid my bill, though. Do you text?

Greg, continuing: People aren’t even afraid of the process that marks science – because we use that form of decision making everyday, too, whether we realize it or not: we have an idea, or goal, or task, and we weigh evidence available to come to some sort of conclusion. That’s science in a nutshell.

What I think acts as a barrier at times is that people have come to associate science with extensive and difficult mathematics as well as technical jargon. The math part is not strictly true – for example, you can study Einstein’s special relativity with no more than junior high algebra! – although certainly we use math as a form of shorthand; why use 1000 words when you can write E = mc^2?

This is true of any form of study – not just the sciences. For example, fields like psychology have their specialized terminology or jargon and their `shorthand’.

Me:  Fascinating. Tell me, what sign are you?

Greg: Ha-ha… that’s funny… oh, wait, are you asking seriously? Really? Well, I’m supposed to be a Cancer, but in reality was born a Gemini. If that sounds a bit contradictory, come on down and take Astronomy 111 or 312 where I explain that most people aren’t the sign they think they are.

Me: Really? They’re not? Surely thousands of astrologers will be devastated by this news. Now, you say Astronomy 111 or 312, does that mean I don’t have to take 111 in order to take 312?

Greg: You got it. We’ve made the four astronomy offerings essentially independent of each other, with minimal overlap, so you can mix and match to taste: Solar System (111), Stars and Galaxies (112), History of Astronomy (312), and Cosmology (311). You can take just one – or all, or anything in between.

Me: You mention that we don’t really need much more than junior high school algebra. First of all, I’m not even sure that I have that, but let’s pretend that I do. What would be a good starter class for someone like me, whose junior high algebra experience occurred back in the days of Titan?

Greg: What a great lead in – Titan happens to be the major moon of Saturn, which we talk about in Astronomy 111. So, at the risk of being self-serving, I’d suggest an intro astronomy course like Astro 111 as a good starter class. We actually offer a range of courses focusing on a variety of topics in astronomy; Astro 111 is a general first year course on the sky and the solar system. As part of the course we get out to look at the sky with our departmental telescopes and binoculars, so students learn about how to find their way around the night sky and they learn a little bit about our place in the universe. If you don’t want or need a lab, Astronomy 311 offers a different focus: the birth and death of our universe, Black Holes, and alien worlds. With choices like that, what more could you ask for?

Me: Personally, I find the thought of a lab horrifying, so Astronomy 311 sounds good on that score alone. Greg, as you’re our first professor profile, I hoped you could impart to the student body some professor secrets. Like, what makes a good student – or what makes a bad one (other than the whole astrology thing)?

Greg: I can’t (and wouldn’t imagine to) speak for all profs, but I know for me that if I feel that a student is really trying – comes to class, asks questions, does the work – regardless of how well they may or may not be doing, I will bend over backwards to help them get through. So a good student, in my view, is one who has a good attitude toward learning and a good work ethic, not necessarily just one who does well. So students: take stuff that interests you – and find things that you can learn in every class you take. Remember, you only get out what you put in, so make the effort to get the most from your education. that’s it for my public service announcement.

Me: That’s great. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions and for being the brave first guest on ‘Meet Your Professors.’. You were a sport.

Greg: You’re welcome. Have a great year, everyone.