UPDATED: Professor Filippenko is doing a Reddit ‘Ask me Anything’ for Pi Day!

Alex Filippenko, UC Berkeley professor of astronomy

If you’ve always wanted to ask our world famous astronomer and astrophysicist professor Alex Filippenko a question, now is your chance! Professor Filippenko is currently doing an AMA (ask me anything) on Reddit in honor of National Pi Day. The AMA started at 8:30 this morning.

Professor Filippenko opened his AMA by declaring “Let the questions pi throwing begin! 3.14159265359” but then went missing in action. We were worried that he accidentally got sucked in by a black hole or created a tear in the time-space continuum, but we later found out that he was just flying somewhere. He mentioned in his next post a little less than two hours, “Just got back online, I am reading through the questions now. I apologize for the delays, I have been flying a bit. (Pi in the Sky!)” For you Berkeley Redditors out there we hope you can forgive Professor Filippenko’s bad AMA etiquette.

Professor Filippenko hasn’t actually responded to anyone’s questions at the time of this post so you still have a chance to ask him that burning question about space or astrophysics. He is answering questions regarding “mathematics, education reform, higher education, astronomy, or astrophysics” but miscellaneous questions will also be considered. We think he might be more likely to respond if you mention you’re a Berkeley undergrad and mention his Astro C10 class (which is an awesome class!). To ask Filipenko just head over to his AMA to ask a question (you will need a Reddit account). Happy Pi Day!

Update: It looks like Professor Filippenko answered some questions. Here are our top 3 favorite responses so far:

1. Q: Your Astro C10 class — Intro To General Astronomy — is always one of the largest and most popular classes on campus (~600 students per semester). For a lot of people, it’s as much science as they’ll ever take, so it seems like a major goal of yours has been to instill a sense of appreciation and general (understanding) of how astrophysics is important to us. Do you think that same model should be used in other core scientific fields, to give people the kind of understanding that makes them informed voters/citizens without expecting that they devote their lives to a field before they encounter the big stuff?

A: Yes, that’s been my general philosophy in my 800-student Astronomy C10 course, and it has been very successful. I think it would work in many other introductory science courses as well. An example at UC Berkeley (my home institution) is Professor Richard Muller’s “Physics for Future Presidents” and the associated book (which you can buy online). He teaches really interesting, relevant physics without focusing on standard technical problems (which most people think are pretty boring) found in physics courses for scientists.

2. Q: What made you decide astrophysics as a career?

A: I’ve always been fascinated by science. From ages 10 through 17, my main interest was chemistry, but as a freshman in high school I was given a small telescope. With it, I “discovered” Saturn — the third “star” at which I pointed the telescope! This really jazzed me, and astronomy became a growing interest. In my freshman year of college, at the University of California at Santa Barbara, I took an introductory astronomy course from Professor Stanton J. Peale, and it was truly wonderful. I realized that the physics of the very large is governed by the physics of the very small (atoms and subatomic particles), so by switching to astrophysics I could “have it all.” So I changed majors with the intention of becoming an astrophysicist, and I’ve never regretted the choice. One final factor in my decision: As a budding young chemist, I played with explosives and had a couple of pretty bad accidents. I realized that I don’t have the self-discipline to stay away from dangerous chemicals, so I should switch fields as an act of self-preservation, if nothing else!

3. Q: Where do you think we will be regarding space travel/research in 50 years? 100 years?

A: Hard to say, that far in advance. I hope we will understand dark matter and dark energy. I hope definitive evidence for extraterrestrial life is found by that time. I’m almost certain we will have directly detected gravitational waves. Regarding space travel: Maybe within that time, people will land on Mars for the first time.

Contact Daniel Radding at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @Dradd510.