Updated: Sep 26
Interviewer: Sophia Troetel
Interviewee: Dr. Thomas Fleming
Date Interviewed: April 17, 2023
Edited By: Liam Larkin-Smith
Link to Youtube Upload: None, someone is still using the KAMP camera
Link to Sound Cloud Audio: https://on.soundcloud.com/BV8Zf
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Sophia: Hello. Thank you for tuning in to KAMP Student Radio. This is your host, Sophia Troetel. Today, as part of the Camp interview series, I am interviewing
Dr. Fleming: Dr Thomas Fleming
Sophia: of the Astronomy department. Now, as a former student of yours, I've observed firsthand your passion for teaching and for astronomy. Now, I'm sure we were all curious as to what you were like as a student in your high school and undergrad days just to kick off the interview.
Dr. Fleming: Well, gee, in high school, we see. I wanted to be an astronaut. I never grew out of that from childhood. And my mother blames herself because when I was one year old, in 1961, John Glenn went into orbit. She put me in front of the TV set to watch it. And then Star Trek came on in 1966 when I was in first grade. So the idea of traveling in space was really exciting to me. And then The Tonight Show had a host named Johnny Carson. He was before Jay Leno, and every month or so he'd have Carl Sagan on because Johnny Carson was an amateur astronomer. So listening to Carl Sagan on The Tonight Show, I realized that you don't necessarily have to be an astronaut to study the stars. So as a high school student, it's kind of strange. I said, you know what? I'll have college to worry about astronomy in space. I want to do the things in high school that I'll never be able to do as an adult. So I was in musicals. I played Harold Hill in The Music Man. Okay. I sang in the choir, though I still sing in choirs. I also was able to play football. And again, I would never make it on a college or professional team, but I got to play football in high school. So I did those sorts of things that I knew I'd never be able to do when I grew up. Then when I got to Cornell, which is where I was an undergraduate, and that's because Carl Sagan was there. Except he wasn't there because he was living in Los Angeles. When I arrived there in 1978, he was making the Cosmos television series. I never got to meet him until my senior year. That's when we moved back to Cornell. But I was then the very serious student. Of course, you ever seen The Big Bang Theory? Television show. Okay. My friends were those guys, right? I mean, that was it.
Sophia: Were you the Sheldon?
Dr. Fleming: No, I was not the Sheldon. I was not. I have met some brilliant people in my life, and very brilliant people have very awkward social skills. I was kind of more, I'd say, like the Leonard of the group. But I was at a place where astronomy was high profile, just like it is here at the University of Arizona.
Sophia: Top three.
Dr. Fleming: Yeah. And so I had fun at Cornell. I sang in the Cornell Glee Club. They elected me president of the Glee Club. In fact, I just sang with the Cornell Glee Club two weeks ago on Monday, on the 3rd of April. It was Cornell spring break and they were on a concert tour of the four corner states. So they gave a concert up in Phoenix. So I drove up to Phoenix to see the concert, and then at the end of the concert, they invite any alumni up. We sing the Ave Maria and then we sing the Cornell songs like the Alma Mater, and that was fun. And of course, these were all 18 and 19, 20 year old men that I had never met yet, and I got to know them pretty quickly. But as an undergraduate, I was the serious student. Actually, I wasn't a 4.0. I think I was a 3.8. I got a B in one of my German classes but… cause I knew I wanted to get into a good graduate school. So I had my artistic release singing in the Glee Club. And then I worked hard at being a good physics and astronomy student. And I applied to the University of Arizona for graduate school. And I got in in 1982. So 40 years ago. It was 40 years ago last August, I arrived here as a 22 year old graduate student in one of the high profile astronomy programs in the country. And, yeah, I then just started getting into astronomy. And I did apply for the astronaut program once I got my PhD. I never made it past the application stage, never got an interview. But the two ways that you train to be an astronaut is either to be a pilot and the only way you get the proper training is to be in the military, or you have to have a PhD in one of the hard sciences like astronomy, physics, chemistry, or a medical doctor's degree. So I had my PhD in astronomy, but I got to study the stars rather than go to them, and my training as an actor in high school paid off. Plus, I used Carl Sagan as my role model.
Sophia: Good role model to have.
Dr. Fleming: Yeah, I felt that was what I was good at. You see, my specialty in astrophysics is x-ray emission from late type stars. Yeah, I know. Maybe there are a handful of people in the world that are interested in that. In the astronomy world, that's not going to get you very far because if you're going to advance in the research end, you've got to research on things that a lot of people find interesting. And what I found interesting wasn't popular with a lot of people. So I wasn't going to be getting a lot of jobs or promotions based on the research I did, though. My first job was in Munich, Germany. So they launched an x-ray satellite in 1990 called the ROSAT and we made the first map of the sky in x-rays. And I was able to study and wrote a lot of scientific papers about x-ray emission from stars like the sun and those little tiny little M-dwarf stars. But when I came back to the United States, I realized that my strength was actually in teaching.
Sophia: That leads me to my second question: where did your passion for teaching come from and what inspired your career in education?
Dr. Fleming: Well, that's the funny thing. I never trained to be an educator. College professors aren't trained to be educators. I still would not be allowed to teach at Tucson High School or at any elementary school because I don't have a teaching certificate and I've never been trained how to teach. College is one of those strange things, is that you hire a professor because of their research, training and credentials, and then you expect them to teach students. And for me, it came actually from I realized early on I had a knack for making complicated concepts and ideas simple. Things just pop into my head, analogies of everyday life, that, you know what? I could use this to explain how an atom is ionized or something like that. And of course, Sagan fed into that because he was the great communicator, the reason he was the most famous astronomer in the United States in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Not because he did the most brilliant research. It was because he knew how to talk to everyday people.
Sophia: He made astronomy accessible, to the layman.
Dr. Fleming: Accessible to everyone. And many of the most brilliant researchers in any science, they are used to talking in their jargon, and they speak mathematically, and they're very good at talking to their peers and teaching the students who want to be like them. So they're great with graduate students, for example, but put them in front of the football team and it's like, well, how do I talk to them about physics or astronomy? Well, I grew up in Camden, Ohio, which is home of the National Football League and professional football, and I played football. And so it's like, well, I know examples I can use from football or other everyday things that most people connect with to explain concepts in astronomy and physics. And then my training as an actor in high school really helped because and still, as a singer and a performer, I mean, I've had I've had the opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City and at Kennedy Center in Washington. I have sung with Dame Janet Baker, who is a famous Alto Contralto. I sang in a concert with her, with the Cornell Glee Club. I also sang backing vocals for Barry Manilow in a concert that he gave here in Tucson in 1993. Yeah. So I know what it's like to realize in the world of show business, okay? Just about everyone's a professional in their union, from the solo singers to the violin players to the janitors and custodians. The one group that aren't pros are the choruses. And so when you're in a choir, you get to perform with professionals, because there aren't a lot of professional choirs. And so symphony orchestras or someone like Barry Manilow will hire a local choir to sing his backing vocals rather than tour with a large group of professionals. You just give one contribution to the choir and, you know, and it's a nonprofit organization, so it's like but it you know, it's it's a chance to to get to be in show business without really being a professional actor or singer. And so from that, I learned a lot of show business skills. So that's how I know that- I have had the great good fortune thanks to the Dean of the College of Science. That I can teach my classes in the Flandrau planetarium. Okay. Since 2012, I've been teaching in a theater, so I think of my classes as a show.
Sophia: It feels like a show.
Dr. Fleming: Yeah. And so from the moment the students walk in, there's music playing that's significant. To that day's topic to the very end of the class. And of course, we fly all over the universe like Carl Sagan and Neil Degrasse Tyson do in the Cosmos TV series. And it's like I'm a big believer in the Mary Poppins principle. Mary Poppins saying a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. So I take astrophysics and physics, and I sweeten it with fun stuff.
Dr. Fleming: And I entice the students to want to learn the hard stuff because it makes their understanding of the fun stuff even deeper.
Sophia: Absolutely. Don't even forget the quotes from the beginning of the chapter that you included. I remember in class, I would always be like, what's the theme of today going to be? It was always exciting because you're teaching, it does feel like a performance. It's a very engaging class. Now, something I remember from class was you saying that students like myself who are raised in large cities didn't grow up seeing the stars. Did you have the chance when you were a child to get to personally view, like, a night sky of stars?
Dr. Fleming: Oh yes, I was a Boy Scout, and I eventually became an Eagle Scout before I turned 18. And every summer I go to scout camp, and that was Camp Tuscazoar outside of New Philadelphia, Ohio. And they had a pretty dark sky there. The problem with northern Ohio is given one week of being in camp, half of those days would either be rainy or cloudy. So you'd be lucky if you got maybe two nights where you could see the stars. But I had a chance to use telescopes and point out constellations. I did that as a Boy Scout. And also then once I got into astronomy, I, of course, had the chance to visit some of the big observatories around the world and get to see really dark skies. And when I teach I created a class in the year 2000 called Stars. And I teach that class. It's for those of you in the old Gen Ed catalog. It's a tier two natural science course. Of course, that's not going to mean anything to the new students who come in, because now I've changed our general education program. But I realized that students who grew up in Manhattan or Los Angeles or Beijing, they've never seen the Milky Way. And just last night, I did a star party with my stars class. We were out at the Saguaro National Park West, which is right up the road from the Desert Museum. It's about the closest you can drive from campus and see the Milky Way and all its brilliance. And I really want students to get a chance to see the Milky Way and to see the things that they can never see from an urban area.
Sophia: Absolutely. So clearly your astronomical fascination has been with you for a long time, since you were a child. But what about the specifics? What fascinated you with not only your German studies but also x-ray stars and systems?
Dr. Fleming: I sort of fell into that. They don't do x-ray astronomy at Steward Observatory, the astronomy department at the University of Arizona here. In fact, now that Professor Bechtel just passed away a month or two ago, I am now the only x-ray astronomer at Steward Observatory. That's not one of our specialties. And when I was here as a graduate student, that's not how I was trained. I was trained to be an optical astronomer, taking- and I was interested in white dwarf stars and little M dwarf stars and stars like the sun. But there was a professor here at the time. This was circa 1985, when I was looking for a PhD Thesis. Say, I have these two friends at Harvard. They're both Italian astronomers. Well, I'm half Italian. My grandfather my maternal grandfather was born in Italy. My mother's maiden name was Van Ditti. And so I had a connection there. And he said, they're looking for someone. They have found all these serendipitous x-ray sources. There was an x-ray satellite that NASA launched in 1978 that pointed at certain objects, but then in the same field of view, there were other x-ray sources that were serendipitously or accidentally discovered. It wasn't the purpose of the observation, but they're there. Well, that's almost like doing a survey, and they were trying to identify, well, where do the x-ray sources come from? Are they quasars? Are they stars falling into black holes? Are they stars like the sun? And they needed people to go and look at all the physical objects that were; see, in x-ray astronomy at that time, you couldn't pinpoint exactly where the source was. There was an area of uncertainty.
Sophia: Like a Schwarzschild radius?
Dr. Fleming: No, not really. It was more like, you know what? It's like a GPS thing. How accurately can you get the GPS? Well, how accurately can I tell you where in the sky those x-rays are coming from? And it turns out it's an area of maybe 20 or 30 arc seconds of angle. So when you look at an optical map, there are maybe three or four different objects in the area, and any one of those objects could be the x-ray source. So we'd have to go with a telescope optically and look at the spectra of all those objects. And is it a star? Is it another galaxy? Is it a quasar? What type of star is it? So I would do a lot of that, and I did it for my PhD thesis. So Domazo and Isabella, they were a married couple. I went to Harvard and spent some time with them to learn x-ray astronomy. And then I came back here and I helped identify all of these stars that were in their x-ray sample. And then I studied how fast were they rotating, what were their spectral types and temperatures, what were their space motions in the galaxy? Basically, I wanted to answer the question: why do some stars emit x-rays and others don't? And trying to answer that question. And when I finished, it turned out there was a professor in Colorado that knew of my thesis work, and he knew that the Germans were going to launch through NASA a telescope that was going to take the first survey of the entire sky in x-rays. And he wanted to get in on the stars, but the data belonged to the Germans. So he proposed that we get together and write a proposal to NASA to fund me to be a postdoc in Germany. And it turns out there was only one astronomer in the Institute in Munich who was interested in stars, and he was lonely. And yet a quarter of all the sources were going to be stars. And I took four years of German in high school and two years at Cornell. So it was a match made in heaven. NASA, I could be NASA spy inside the German outfit since I understood German. And so I went to work for the Germans. NASA paid me, I worked for the Germans for free, but I was able to help them with the work they needed to get done. And it really was a win- win for everyone. And so I got to live in Germany for four and a half years. And then I got a big grant from NASA afterwards, which I brought back here to the University of Arizona. And I started on the faculty back in 1993. So that was about 30 years ago.
Sophia: So you've been teaching for the past three decades?
Dr. Fleming: Just about. I started teaching in 1996. When I first came here, I was strictly research, and that's all I was doing, was research. And then there were professors that wanted to buy out some of their time, and so they would supplement my salary from their salary, and I teach their classes for them. And I found out that I was pretty good at it. I had won an outstanding Teaching Assistant award when I was a TA here. In Germany. I did no teaching whatsoever because I was at a research institute, not at a university. And of course, their academic system, their college system is different over there than it is here. But then I found out I was really good at teaching. And then when I also realized that my chances of getting grant money and other faculty positions based on the research I did, I wasn't researching in a real popular area. And you see, the thing about astronomy, we're not curing cancer, okay? So they say that astronomy is one of the last pure sciences because, really, we're collecting knowledge for knowledge's sake. Whether the universe is 14 billion years old or 13 billion years old, it's not going to affect your everyday life, right? It's like how many angels dance on the head of a pin? It's sort of just to know. And we answer questions like that. Like, where do we come from? Are we the only life in the universe? And these are the sort of questions, though, that don't have a lot of practical applications. Therefore, unlike medical research, where any proposal you make for grant money or for research can be prioritized based on which proposal is likely to get us to a cure for cancer. In astronomy, what's considered important is what most people find interesting. Since it's a pure science, it's more of a popularity contest. If more people think black holes are interesting than little M stars, there's going to be more research done on black holes than little M stars, because that's what most astronomers find interesting. So I decided, you know what? I'm going to concentrate and emphasize my teaching credentials. And I was lucky enough that I was able to turn my position into what's mostly a teaching position in the department of astronomy. One of our former deans was very, very farsighted. He wanted to make sure that all his departments had teaching specialists in them, not just all researchers. And now I teach more than many of the other colleagues in my department because that's considered my specialty. But I'm expected to do more teaching than the other faculty, and I'm expected to do less research than the other faculty.
Sophia: Well, it's a bit of an unfair trade off, but as a former student, I greatly appreciate it. Now, as somebody who knows that astronomical progress in research has been fairly recent, what has been your favorite astronomical development that you witnessed yourself?
Dr. Fleming: Wow, that's hard because there's so much that's been done recently. One example is in the 1980s, when I was a graduate student, brown dwarfs. Those of you who have taken an astronomy class, that's a stillborn star. That's an object that tried to become a star, but it didn't have enough mass.
Sophia: No fusion in its core.
Dr. Fleming: Yeah, no fusion in its core. But in the 1980s, we never found a brown dwarf. There was a woman named Jill Tarter, an astronomer. She's the astronomer that Carl Sagan based the Jody Foster character on in Contact because she was involved in the SETI. You search for extraterrestrial intelligence. But she also coined the term brown dwarf. She said, what do we call these proto stars that don't make it to the main sequence? Right? The proto stars that can't fuse hydrogen, that are basically stillborn. And she called them brown dwarfs. And I was involved in one project in the 80s that didn't go anywhere trying to find a brown dwarf. We needed to really improve the infrared camera technology because these objects are going to be so cool that most of their emission comes in infrared light. Not the kind of light we can see with our eyes. So you need very sensitive infrared detectors. It wasn't until 1995 that brown dwarfs were disc covered. But here's a situation that when I started in astronomy, these were theoretical objects. Yeah, they might exist. They should be there, but we have no evidence. Now we do. Same with Earth. If you watch Star Trek, every planet or every star system that Captain Kirk went to had planets orbiting it and people living on it.
Sophia: We only just discovered extrasolar planets fairly recently
Dr. Fleming: 1995. But in the 1970s and 80s, when I was in high school,
Sophia: It was an assumption.
Dr. Fleming: It was just an assumption. We had no evidence that there were planets around other stars other than the planets in our solar system. It wasn't until the technology caught up to where we were able to finally detect planets around other stars. Now we have examples of thousands of them. The catalogs of extrasolar planets keeps increasing every year.
Sophia: Which brings me to my next question. This is more of a popular interest one: do you believe in extraterrestrial life? And what is your take on Fermi's paradox?
Dr. Fleming: Oh yeah
Sophia: Had to appeal to the masses.
Dr. Fleming: Enrico Fermi in 1950 said, well making some plausible arguments that even though the stars are far apart, we could get to a situation where our technology could get us to the nearest star in several centuries, and we then maybe could get to further stars within a few millennia. We've been around as a civilization only for, what, a couple thousand years? The Earth's been around for 4.6 billion years, but our galaxy is 10 billion years old. So what if someone had a head start on us? It's plausible that there could be civilizations that have traveled to other star systems. So where are they now? Again, serious scientists don't take the claims that we have been visited by flying saucers, the UFOs. We see that as more of a religious sort of thing, that people want to believe that they've been abducted by a UFO or that they've seen something. That's right. But there's no hard evidence unless there's hard evidence, and you can't say the government's hiding it. This government, no government is competent enough to keep such a secret. Look at all the other things they can't keep secret or they leak, there’s just no way. So Fermi asked, where are they? Why haven't we been visited? Why haven't a spacecraft landed right at the White House and say, take me to your leader, or whatever? Why hasn't that ever happened? And that's called Fermi's paradox. And then there are certain answers to Fermi's paradox, certain possibilities. One is that we are the only ones, right? And that only life evolved here. That's a possibility. I think that's considering how biology and physics and chemistry work, it's hard to believe that in the vastness of the universe, this is the only place that happened. It could be that interstellar space travel is really not possible. The energy required to approach the speed of light and the difficulty in keeping people alive or any type of life form alive in interstellar space could be so great that Star Trek is science fiction. It's not reality and that it's not possible to go to other planets. It could be that as other civilizations evolve, they decide they don't want to travel to other they don't want to spend the resources and the money and the time to develop a technology and an energy source that could get them to other star systems. It could be that once civilizations get into atomic energy they go to war and destroy themselves and that they never make it long enough to become
Sophia: Great filter theory.
Dr. Fleming: Yeah, so those are different possibilities. Now, again, as a scientist we have no other evidence that there's other life forms other than what's on the Earth. It is hard for me to imagine that we are the only life form. I mean, considering that even if our sort of life is rare, we consider the number of stars in the Milky Way and we now know that planets have lots or stars have lots of planets around them. That we do have scientific evidence that our solar system isn't unique. Other stars have planets
Sophia: within the habitable zone.
Dr. Fleming: Right. And then there are other galaxies. So there's got to be at least if the odds are slim there's still so many possible planets out there that it had to have happened someplace else. I kind of think that
Sophia: They shouldn't visit us?
Dr. Fleming: No, that they can't. That interstellar space travel is a very difficult problem. Keeping people alive. It's going to be hard keeping people alive going to Mars. Elon Musk doesn't talk a lot about this. Okay? We say, oh, we're going to send colonists to Mars. There's the whole problem of creating a habitable environment on Mars. The motion picture of The Martian with Matt Damon kind of illustrated that. But an even more difficult problem is keeping people alive on the trip to Mars because of the solar wind and the radiation. Notice that the Apollo missions to the moon were always launched at full moon. It that's when the moon is behind the Earth so that the Apollo space capsule would be protected by the Earth's magnetic field from the solar wind. They never launched to the moon at new moon when the moon was between the sun and the Earth because that would have exposed the astronauts to too much radiation and too much of the solar wind. When you have all those high energy particles bombarding. That will eventually kill you. Now, they were in a tin can and they were only in space for a few days. Imagine sending someone to Mars, a trip that will take over a year, and you would have to have lead lined spacecraft in order to protect you from the solar wind,
Sophia: Which are heavy, so you have the issue of lift.
Dr. Fleming: And you've got to get it into space. So that's going to be very difficult. So keeping people alive in interplanetary space or interstellar space is not a trivial issue. So we have been able to send human beings to the Moon and looks like we're going to send them back. Or if we aren't, the Chinese are, right, they're actively going back to the Moon. That can be done, but that's on a limited basis. To create on Mars, a permanent habitation. That comes first if you want to try and colonize space. And that's going to be a difficult problem. So my personal inkling is, I think that there is life on other planets. It's just traveling to other star systems is incredibly difficult, and no one's been able to do it.
Sophia: No, I absolutely hear your perspective. Plus, there's the issue of no liquid water on Mars. Are they going to be drilling and melting? That's a debate for another day. Now, as you know, even today, the universe is still considered a great mystery in a lot of ways, from black holes to dark matter. Where is your curiosity in terms of biggest scientific mystery of the universe?
Dr. Fleming: Well, again, going back to the last topic, my biggest scientific mystery of the universe is, is there another Earth-like planet out there? Right? Is there a habitable planet and life like ours? And again, we only know about life like ours.
Sophia: Carbon based life.
Dr. Fleming: Carbon based life. Who's to say, you know, crystals, reproduce, are they alive? So it's like even a definition of life is difficult to actually construct. But there could be a type of life, even sentient intelligent life that we have no comprehension of. So to me, knowing if we are the only ones or if there's someone else out there, if there is a way that that could be proven, that would be a mystery of the universe. That really would be. I actually don't get so excited about, I think most astronomers think that the Big Bang Theory is the correct way of; notice, we don't believe. As a good scientist, you're not supposed to believe in things
Dr. Fleming: That doesn't mean that scientists do believe because they're human. But a good scientist should be able, to no matter they have a cherished idea of how they think things work. If new evidence comes along that contradicts it, they should be willing to say no.
Sophia: Yes. Every claim must be falsifiable.
Dr. Fleming: I have to be able to reject what I thought was true. That's why we revere Johannes Kepler, because Kepler was the, he was the last scientific astrologer. Right? He cast horoscopes for a living. But he also figured out the laws of planetary motion, which he thought should have something to do with perfect spheres. And he had this pet idea and never could make it work. But when he actually got Tycho's data and realized that it his pet theory wouldn't work, and he trusted Tycho as an observer. He threw away his old ideas and said, I was wrong. Let's try something new. And he tried the Ellipse and got it right.
Sophia: He did.
Dr. Fleming: That's what an ideal scientist should be able to do. Now, most scientists think that the Big Bang theory is probably the way our universe evolved, that there was a beginning to the universe. I was just telling someone the other day, a student, that you grew up with the Big Bang Theory. There was even a popular TV show about the Big Bang theory. But when I was a child in the 1960s, when I was in high school, in the 1970s, the Big Bang theory wasn't the favorite theory for cosmology. There was something called the steady state theory that had been formulated in the 1940s by Bondi, Gold and Coyle. And a lot of scientists liked the idea of a steady state theory that meant the universe always existed and it always will exist. So it's infinitely in the past, you go to minus infinity, and in the future, times infinity, because you don't need a creator. And many scientists are atheist, right? So you don't need a creator. If there never was a beginning to the universe.
Sophia: How do they justify planetesimals?
Dr. Fleming: Well, one of the problems they had is. When we look out into the universe we knew, Hubble showed us that the galaxies are mostly all moving away from us. That was proven.
Sophia: Redshift and blueshift,
Dr. Fleming: Right. And mostly all galaxies are red shifted. Only the ones that are closest to us like Andromeda are blueshifted. The Big Bang theory explains that space is expanding. It's expanding from the initial Big Bang and so the galaxies get carried away with space as it expands. The steady state theory space is static, right? It can't expand. That means literally the galaxies are all moving away from us. Well, if the galaxies are all moving away from us then pretty soon we shouldn't have any galaxies nearby us. And if the universe has always existed, why do we have galaxies that are relatively nearby? They should have all gone away. Well, you have to have places where new galaxies are created and thrown out into the universe. You have to have something like that for the steady state theory to be correct. Problem was, there was no good explanation for how that could happen. But the thing is, the Big Bang theory made a couple of predictions. The cosmic background radiation and the hydrogen to helium ratio. In 1966, the phone company, of all people back then, we had one phone company, MaBel American Telephone and Telegraph. Their scientists were investigating experimenting with wireless communication because all telephone conversations in the 1960s were wired. They were hardwired right,landlines, and they were experimenting with microwave dishes, and they had this static background, and they were wondering, what the heck is this? What's going on? They thought it was a man made source, maybe from a television station. They checked off anything that could cause the static. They couldn't find a man-made source. It was everywhere in the sky. Then someone said, Go talk to the astronomers at Princeton, because they were in New Jersey. And they found out this was something predicted by the Big Bang that there should be a background radiation of microwaves. All throughout the universe. It's the echo left over from the Big Bang. And then in the 1980s, they actually discovered that the hydrogen to helium ratio in the universe is three to one, 25% helium, 75% hydrogen. That's what the Big Bang theory predicted. So here were two predictions of this theory that actually were proven. That's when more scientists started to accept it. So in a sense, that's not a mystery anymore, except they still argue with how fast it’s expanding. And in the 1990s, there were a group of scientists that realized that the distances we were measuring to other galaxies weren't exactly right. And when they got it corrected, they found out that the universe now is actually accelerating and it's going to start expanding at a much faster rate. And one of the astronomers who did that, Dr. Brian Schmidt, who is the chancellor of the Australian National University, he was an undergraduate here at the University of Arizona, and I was a graduate student, and he won the Nobel Prize in 2011. He is the only University of Arizona alumnus or graduate to win a Nobel Prize.
Dr. Fleming: And he did it for adding on to the Big Bang theory, finding out that the universe is actually accelerating.
Sophia: Impressive research.
Dr. Fleming: Right? So that's one thing that we always have to realize in science in every and everyday life. You might think that something is right, but. But then, decades later, most people might accept a completely different explanation of something.
Sophia: I think open-mindedness is not something we should reserve just for the astronomical community. Maybe some people need to realize their beliefs are not always right just because their beliefs are firm. That leads me to an interesting question of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kevin. In my current astronomy class with Dr. Paws, we were talking about the mystery of whether or not Johannes Kepler killed Tycho Brahe.
Dr. Fleming: No, really? To get his data?
Sophia: To get his data. And the Uraniborg.
Dr. Fleming: Yeah. Which is that was his observatory. It was, Uraniborg really means castle of the heavens. It was in Denmark. Yeah. I had never heard. I knew that Kepler and Tycho were kind of at odds with each other. They wanted to work together. But one guy was an extroverted party animal. Tycho.
Sophia: With a gold nose.
Dr. Fleming: With a gold nose. And Kepler was the introverted brilliant nerd. But Tycho knew that he needed Kepler to explain his data. But he finally left it to him in his will. And I had never heard that. Some people think that Kepler might have contrived to have Tycho killed. Tycho supposedly died from a urinary tract infection because he was at a banquet and he drank too much. But the Emperor was there. The Holy Roman Emperor. And it's impolite to leave the room until the emperor does. So he had to hold it. He held it for too long and he got a bladder infection. That's what we're told in history is how he died. Now, whether he was poisoned at the banquet?
Sophia: Yeah. We've been researching alternate theories in the class. I was just wondering if you had an input?
Dr. Fleming: First I had heard that
Sophia: Scientific mysteries
Dr. Fleming: Yeah.
Sophia: Not to shift the conversation, but
Dr. Fleming: Go ahead.
Sophia: You've been at the University of Arizona for several decades.
Dr. Fleming: Yes.
Sophia: And although Tucson may not be everyone's biggest fan it's been enough for you to stay here, continue teaching. So I was wondering, what is your favorite part of living in Tucson?
Dr. Fleming: You can see the stars at night. That's the reason I came to graduate school here. Because I was an undergrad in Ithaca, New York. Cornell University. Where it rains five out of four days, literally. It always rains and you have very few clear nights. And I came to graduate school here because I knew I could use the telescopes almost any night. And so the fact that I can see the stars at night, I really love that. And I'm not a water person in the sense that I don't need the beach or the ocean. I'm not a swimmer. I don't do water sports. So the fact that I live in a desert doesn't really bother me. But I really love Tucson because I can see the stars at night. That's why.
Sophia: Right. And as someone who's been living and teaching here for several decades, how have you noticed Tucson, the city itself and the University of Arizona change over the years?
Dr. Fleming: Oh, wow. Well, more people live here now and eventually there's going to be an issue with water because we do live in a desert. And in the end, Mother Nature is going to win. She has the final say and. But Tucson. It's amazing, though that how little Tucson has grown compared to Phoenix. I mean, Phoenix is just so huge. Right. So many people have moved there. And maybe it's because we've got these two mountain ranges here that kind of keep us from expanding in one direction or another to the east or to the north. But Tucson has gotten very crowded and the University has gotten really big. I can even give you more perspective. This weekend, we are going to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Steward Observatory.
Dr. Fleming: Steward was officially dedicated on April the 23rd, 1923, 100 years ago, when Steward Observatory was built, it's just the yellow just the cream tile built thing, the little white building with the dome. It was off campus.
Dr. Fleming: That was off campus. At the corner of Cherry Avenue and Second Street. Cherry Avenue and Second Street were dirt roads. That was, until 1919, an ostrich farm run by the College of Agriculture. Yeah. And then they put the telescope there. They moved the ostriches. The ground was broken in 1919, they finally finished the building in 21. The telescope was finished in 22, and they dedicated it in 23. The nearest building would have been the engineering building and then Old Main. So there was a road, Campus Avenue, which ends now at that roundabout by Starbucks. It used to go all the way out to Steward Observatory because there were no buildings there. And it was lined with trees. And there was a nice round roadway around the Steward Observatory. I have lots of pictures from the 1920s. And of course, the University of Arizona was not in Tucson. It was built outside of Tucson. The reason? Because what we called downtown was Tucson until air conditioning was invented. So the very first streetcar, the first trolley, was built to connect Tucson with the University. And then Tucson grew, and it engulfed the University. In 1923, ihe intersection of Speedway and Campbell was about as far as there was any development. Everything beyond that was desert, except Fort Lowell, which was an army or cavalry Fort Fort Lowell is at Fort Lowell Road and Craycroft. But what's happened since air conditioning was invented, more people found it more comfortable to live in the desert. I always wondered, how did students deal in the 1890s and the 19 oh s and the 1910s with the heat? And what I've learned is that students would make their own swamp coolers. They would take a scarf or towel, usually a scarf, dip it in water and wrap it around your neck. You had your own personal evaporative cooler and that's how they would deal with the hot weather when they went to classes
Sophia: Still being used by soccer moms today. What about changes that you've personally witnessed on campus?
Dr. Fleming: Oh, personally. Well, there are probably certain things I shouldn't say because it has to do with how the university is run. Okay. But I would say probably the availability of research to undergraduate students. There wasn't as much in the 1980s when I first got here. It is a research one university. That has advantages and disadvantages. If you're the sort of student that really needs guidance, a small liberal arts university might where where all your professors know your names and you have small classes, might be a good fit for you. But if you're interested in going on to a professional program, whether it's in business or law or science or engineering, having that research experience, you can't get that at a small liberal arts university. And I see that the research, even though University of Arizona has done research for a long time, it really has exploded since I've gotten here in the 80s. As far as all the buildings that have been built for research and the work that's being done, just the sheer size of everything is greater. I remember in the 80s, we didn't have computers yet. Registration for classes was done in McHale Center. Every department had a table. And as a grad student TA, I would sit at the astronomy table and we would have a legal pad. For every class. Here's Astronomy 100. Here's Astronomy. And if you wanted to sign up for the class, you wrote your name on the pad. If you wanted to drop it, you came over and you crossed your name off. And when the pad was filled, we would say, okay, this class is closed out now. And everyone else, that's how you did it compared to how we do it now. Right. Everything is so automated. That's really a big change on campus as with everything in society is computers and automation, because stop and think what it would be like to go to school here without a computer, without a smartphone. If you wanted to make a phone call, you had to go into a room where there was a landline to make the call when you're in class. I kind of like those days. My students couldn't get calls because there were no phones in the class. So it's like that's something that I've really noticed, the change of everything. And so in that sense, yeah, the university has become a bit more impersonal because there are just more people, and it's become even more siloed than it was when I was first here. So people at Steward Observatory, for example, the marketing and consumer science courses over in what's that called, the other end, where the Tommy Hilfiger thing is they never go over to that side of campus, so they wouldn't know anybody who works there or Anthropology, which is way over there. They wouldn't know anybody in Anthropology because we never run into them. Now there are so many you just don't bump into people on campus because it's so big and we have our own little areas, so it's become, certainly more impersonal that way. And I say there are advantages to having the big university, but then there are some downsides with that as well.
Sophia: For such a large public university and you teach classes of hundreds of students, I've noticed that you don't take an impersonal approach at all. You actually make an effort to get to know your students, to engage with them and talk to them. So how do you personally try to connect with your students and your classes over the semester?
Dr. Fleming: Well, you see, I want my students to learn and pay attention and get their noses out of their phones. So how can I convince my students to take my class seriously if I don't take the class seriously? And what is the best way to show my students that I take my class seriously? This is the most important thing I do on this campus of all the other tasks and duties I perform. Get to know their names. There's nothing that really impresses someone when you start calling them by their first name. The difficulty is when you have ten women in the class named Jennifer, right, then it becomes difficult. But for me, because they only have to learn the names of a handful of professors, and I have about 150 students whose names I have to learn, but it's one way of showing them that I take the class seriously. Also one of my rules since I teach in a theater, but I don't sit behind the council that runs the Planetarium projector. I walk all around. My goal is to look every student directly in the eye once every class. Period. Make sure that. Right. I see you. Right. And I don't want students to think that they're anonymous in my class, that they actually, I know that they're there, and I notice when they're not there, because I will make a comment or two when someone's been missing for a while. It's nice to see you back here again. Right. So that they realize I realize that they were missing. I think that the very least of learning a student's name shows them that you take it seriously, that you actually care. And this is what I tell our TAs. I said, if there's one thing that you can do to become a good teacher is just show, don't say show in your actions, that you care about the students learning, that you understand why they're there and that their reasons for being there is just as important as your reason for being there and that you want them to succeed. As long as the students have a feeling that their teachers and their TAs want them to succeed and are there to support them, then you've won half the battle. Now, you could still be a very boring teacher, but at least the students know that you're trying to help them. And you'll be, because you're not treating the class as if it's just in your contract. It's a duty you have to do. And you don't really enjoy doing it, but you do it because I have to. So that's what I try to do. And then that's why I want my students to think of my class as a show, as an event. It's like, I would never think of skipping astronomy class because it's like, the place to be. It's fun, it's exciting. I don't know what the hell he's going to do next.
Sophia: I brought friends to that class so many times because it was always so eventful and fun, especially. And I recommend to anyone to take one of Dr. Fleming's class with full dome. It's just so engaging. You feel like you're at an amusement park. You're just transported, flying through the galaxy.
Dr. Fleming: It's like a Disney ride. Kind of like
Sophia: Like Space Mountain
Dr. Fleming: Yeah, but the thing is that there's content in those images. It's not just a fun ride, but there's actually scientific data there. And we use that experience to answer questions with the clickers. Though, in the future, we're probably going to go now. I agree with the university that it's unreasonable to have students buy a clicker, even though if you can use it for all your classes. So we're working right now. I'm on a committee that the university is going to probably, we have to select the vendor, buy an app. Contract so that the students can either use their smartphone, a tablet or a laptop as a clicker and the software you need will be free.
Sophia: Point Solutions
Dr. Fleming: I can't get into the details because there's a certain process the university goes into when they buy something expensive. We had to go through the same process when we bought the Planetary and Projection system in 2014. There were four vendors that were buying. They come in and they give a bid and then you have to treat each vendor fairly. There's a whole process that our purchasing department goes through and then you evaluate based on your needs and the price, right? It isn't just the low bid but if you go with the low bid you have to justify why. If you go with a higher bid you justify why. But there's whole process we have to go through with these vendors. But eventually the idea would be that hopefully next year the students will have an app that the university paid for so you get it for free and you can use your cell phone as a clicker and also just take tests and things like that in class. Or you can use a laptop that way, because the beauty of having a clicker-like system. It's like a student response system. It makes the students active in class. You just can't have students sitting by, taking notes and not saying a word. That's just me putting on a show and you passively watching. I give you questions during class that you have to answer, and the clicker lets me know that you're answering, and I can see what you've answered. Then you talk to each other, right? And hopefully the students who are getting it right help teach the students that are getting it wrong. And the students that are getting it right reinforce their understanding. Because the best way to learn something is to have to teach it to someone else.
Sophia: I agree.
Dr. Fleming: So I try and get the students to help me teach the other students to teach each other. Or even if I'm doing a scientific experiment or a little demonstration, let's make you predict. Use your clicker or your smartphone to tell me what's going to happen when I press this button, right? Is the ball going to hit the ground first, or is the feather going to hit the ball first? Are they going to both hit at the same time? Then you commit to a prediction. Then you're invested. You want to know, am I right? So devices like these response systems are one way to make the class active in other fields. I have colleagues that have other ways that make students active in class, whether it's flipping the classroom where they watch the lecture on panopto or on zoom, and then in classroom, you're actually building something or you're putting together, or you're working on a project based on what you learned in the video lecture. There are many different ways you can make students active in the classroom. And we found that when you get students moving and acting and talking, that helps their understanding than just listening.
Sophia: Active teaching is a good teaching philosophy. Unfortunately for us, that's about all the time we have for today. But thank you so much. You've been a wonderful guest, and thank you for sharing your astronomical knowledge. Once again, I highly recommend any listeners you have the chance to take as the Gen ed or through Astronomical studies, one of Dr. Fleming's courses. This has been the KAMP interview series. Thank you for tuning in. Enjoy music on KAMP Student Radio.
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