“Most people who get into astronomy are into it as a young person,” says Raj Pandya, director of the John R. Kirk Planetarium at SUNY New Paltz. “I had a general interest in it when I was a kid, but I never went to space camp or anything like that. For me it really started later when I was a physics major as an undergrad, learning about the math and all the things that you apply to it.”
Pandya realized about halfway through his course of physics studies that knowledge of all the small particles we can’t see was more compelling to him when applied to the physical world we can see and to space. “I knew I had more of an astrophysics mindset by that time,” he says, “so I started taking courses in astronomy.” He earned an undergraduate degree in physics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, then went on to get a master’s degree in astronomy from San Diego State University in California.
After graduation, Pandya stayed in San Diego for a few years before moving back to New York. The Westchester native was teaching astronomy part-time as an adjunct professor at several colleges in the region when the position of full-time astronomy lecturer and planetarium director opened up at SUNY New Paltz four years ago. “The fact they needed someone to run the planetarium made the full-time position possible,” says Pandya. “And the position as director and lecturer in one package is perfect for me, because I really like teaching and there aren’t that many opportunities to run a planetarium.”
Pandya has been the director of the John R. Kirk Planetarium at SUNY New Paltz now since 2011. Three-fourths of his professional life is spent in the classroom teaching physics and astronomy with the remainder directing the planetarium. He also teaches a one-credit physics lab that most science majors will take at some point in their studies.
The planetarium is used for the education of SUNY students and other school groups along with scouting organizations and the like. It also offers a regular schedule of shows for the public and a twice-monthly Astronomy Night that begins with a show at the planetarium and ends at the college’s Smolen Observatory.
A lot of people are surprised to learn that SUNY New Paltz has a planetarium on campus, says Pandya. On the other hand, those who do know about the shows held in the 44-seat domed theater tend to become regulars, he says, coming back often to experience shows that are different each time. In fact, the increasing number of people lining up for the shows motivated a change in the ticketing process a few years ago, done online now rather than on the first-come, first-served basis it used to be. The tickets are free, made available one week before the show, and often go quickly. The shows draw approximately 4,000 visitors a year, with Pandya crediting the local Mid-Hudson Astronomical Association for helping to get the word out.
The Planetarium’s projection system was upgraded in 2013 with the installation of a fish-eye lens projector that can display digital simulations of the sky and mimic celestial motions. It allows the audience to see images of stars, constellations, planets and galaxies and to view the sky as seen from different planets and moons. The new system is used in conjunction with the original Spitz Space Systems A3P projector from the 1960s, which displays the stars and planets of any season as seen from any latitude, either in their current positions or those of the past or future. (Pandya says the two systems are comparable to “a clock driven by gears versus an iPhone,” but says that both have their merits and each does something the other cannot.) Various auxiliary projectors help in illustrating astronomical phenomena.
As planetarium director, Pandya creates the shows and narrates them, guiding the audience through an exploration of conditions in the night sky on the date of that show or using the tools to demonstrate recent discoveries in space. Recently New Paltz Times paid a visit to Raj Pandya at the planetarium to ask him what’s involved in a day’s work as its director.
What do you like most about directing the planetarium?
I like the outreach portion of it, just educating the public about astronomy; I think that’s very fulfilling. It’s great to see other people inspired. I know that sounds like the cliché answer, but I like that aspect of it a lot. It’s fun to inspire people, and there’s a ‘wow’ factor; if I show somebody something cool, there’s a ‘wow’! It’s teaching, which I love to do, and it’s kind of a direct teaching: you’re not going to take a test, I’m not going to grill you, you’re just here because you want to learn.
I also enjoy showing people that the universe is knowable by using the tools that we have. Of course the universe is a mystery, but we know a lot; it’s knowable. That’s one of the themes I have here in the planetarium. There are more unknowns, of course, than there are knowns, but if I can show someone else that the universe is knowable, maybe that person can get inspired and do something in the future.
What is the most challenging thing about your work?
It’s a challenge to think of what’s teachable, what’s interesting and what’s current. This week there’s a meteor shower, so the show will be about that, but the next time I do the show it might be about an important discovery of something on Pluto. There are several different topics that present themselves each time and knowing what I can convey to a general audience is a challenge. I might think something is really cool about dark matter, or dark energy, which is very high-concept physics, but how am I going to explain that outside of a classroom? Or sometimes there are incorrect stories in the news that I have to weed out.
What personal attributes or skills are necessary to do your line of work?
Definitely passion for the subject and knowing how to convey the information. Sometimes you have school groups where you know they’re all in second grade, or I have all college students in here, or the Astronomical Association. And general shows are for everyone; people from all over the community come in here, of all ages. You don’t want to go way over the audience’s head or make it way too elementary. I try to teach spatial reasoning as much as possible, visualizing what’s around you and then applying that to things out in space.
You need good communication skills and to be able to speak well and speak without people looking at you; it’s totally dark in here [during a show]. Also managing the content so that there are some things that are interesting for everyone and bringing new discoveries in astronomy to the table.
What advice would you give someone going into the field of astronomy?
Most universities require a Ph.D. to teach. If you want to work in a planetarium, a degree in astronomy or physics gives a lot of technical training, but getting involved in a planetarium or going to shows or an observatory would be a good thing so that you have an idea of how outreach works. I didn’t really do that when I was an undergrad; I studied and learned all the math, did the technical stuff and did well on tests, but I didn’t quite see how that would translate into the outside world. Now this is what I do and I had to learn some of it on the fly.
For an elementary school student interested in astronomy, it all starts with math. That’s the most important skill. And that goes all through high school: the more you can do in math, the better you’re going to get a grasp of things in college that will teach you about astronomy. It’s all based on physics, physics is based on math, so that’s your course.
Is there a memorable experience running the planetarium that stands out?
There are times when I’ve collaborated with other people in the planetarium; sometimes I have an expert in their field here and we do a show together. And last year we did two shows with a couple of electronic musicians hidden out of sight behind the curtains, and I did the whole show as I normally do while they played a soundtrack to it. They were able to look out from where they were and as I showed something, they could change their music to reflect that. That was memorable because I like playing music myself and listening to music and it was a great collaboration. Having them here live was fun and I hope to do that again.
Information about attending a show at the planetarium is available at https://www.newpaltz.edu/planetarium/about.html.