Professor’s Bookshelf: Professor William Herbst on Wesleyan, Twain, and the End of the World
Chair of the Astronomy Department, future Director of Graduate Studies, and John Monroe Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy William Herbst has been at the University since 1978. Professor Herbst sat down with The Argus to discuss not actually having a bookshelf, rediscovering his artistic side at 60-years-young, and his exotic travels for work. He also illuminated the University’s past, his present research, and how, at some point, the world is going to end.
The Argus: What’s on your bookshelf right now?
William Herbst: Well, you know, I was thinking about that question because I saw the name of your column…and I don’t have a bookshelf anymore [laughs]. The thing behind you, the giant blank wall, used to be a bookshelf, and I boarded it up. What’s mostly on my bookshelves now are pictures, mementos of things, supplies. Fewer and fewer books. I made the transition to mostly paperless and the online-information world. In the sciences, basically we don’t use books anymore. We use journals, and so for my professional work, everything is on my computer.
I realized that for my home and leisure reading, I have my Kindle. So perhaps you should change this to “What’s on your Kindle?”
A: Have you read anything good on your Kindle lately?
WH: Yes! On my Kindle is my leisure reading, which I don’t get too much of. It’s usually just when I go on vacation, I get to read the kind of books I like to read, like John Grisham and all of those. They’re just easy reads. I think I’ve read everything of his. For humor, I read Dave Barry, one of my favorite authors. My kids buy me his books regularly, so I think I’ve read all of them as well.
When I got my Kindle, the very first book I bought was Mark Twain. So I bought the complete works of Mark Twain for, like, one dollar. I was just astounded! And it’s great. I don’t read it cover to cover, but I’ll just read little bits of it. I love having a Kindle. You can just access this stuff in a minute. I also read former president of Wesleyan Bill Chase’s book. It’s called “One Hundred Semesters.”
Mostly what I have on my bookshelf now is a lot of art books. I was one of these science kids growing up, and I have a lot of understanding for people who get turned off by science due to bad experiences when they’re younger because maybe they’re told that they’re not so good—I had the same experience in art classes. I couldn’t draw, so I didn’t get a lot of positive reinforcement from my teachers in art classes. So the artistic side of me atrophied until I was about sixty, and then I took some courses here in GLSP—some art courses and photography, and I got interested in that. I’ve done photography because astronomy is a lot of photography, so I have some books like this one on Robert Birdma—his portraits.
A: How have you been able to combine astronomy and photography?
WH: As an observational astronomer, what a telescope really is, is a big camera. So when you use a professional telescope, you’re doing photography—that’s my professional part of it. Amateur-wise, no, I don’t usually take pictures of the sky because that’s my profession. Mostly I do landscapes. It’s very funny because when I take these artistic photography courses, my teachers always say, “I want to see pictures of the sky.” No. [Laughs] That would be like a busman’s holiday.
A: What are some places that you’ve gotten to travel for your astronomy work?
WH: Some very interesting places. I spent a lot of time in South America, Chile specifically. Chile has some of the best observing sights in the world. The other really interesting place that I’ve been to is Uzbekistan because we have colleagues who work in Uzbekistan, and there’s an observatory there, and it is a really great observing location, except for the fact that it’s just about right on the border of Afghanistan. So from that aspect, it’s not so nice, but climate-wise it’s nice.
Travelling to meetings, too, has meant that I’ve been able to go to interesting places, like Armenia and Moscow—a lot of time in Germany. Hawaii is a very good place that I go to quite a bit. Being a professional astronomer, as time goes on, more and more things can be controlled remotely. I can get observations from Hawaii now without even actually going there. Maybe the next generation of astronomers won’t get to travel as much, which is a shame.
A: What kind of research are you doing right now?
WH: I’m working on a terrific star that was discovered here at Wesleyan. It’s called a winking star that does odd things, and it’s a very young star. It’s actually a binary star, and it has a ring of dust and gas around it. That ring is—we think—going to be forming new planets. And that ring is actually wobbling—precessing—so that sometimes it’s in our line of sight and sometimes it isn’t. It’s now gone into this really fascinating time when it’s right in our line of sight, so we’re trying to exploit that lucky geometrical arrangement to try to learn about how planets form out of dust and gas.
A: So you’ve been at Wesleyan since 1978. What changes have you seen to the University in that time?
WH: [Laughs] Do you really want me to say? I don’t know, what can I say that you can print that won’t get me in too much trouble? The students haven’t changed that much. The students are great.
In terms of the nature of the place, it’s become a little less relaxed, laid-back, family-like in terms of the administration, and a little more corporate and large and impersonal, which I kind of regret. It used to be that things were easier to get done administratively. Now it seems that there are many hoops to jump through and barriers and impediments to just accomplishing the work you want to accomplish. It’s more bureaucratic. It might not be just Wesleyan, it might be a fact about society.
In terms of the students, I think it’s true that today’s student is kind of a product of consumer culture. They do feel more entitled to certain things than past students. They expect that their opinion about things is going to be measured and counted, and sometimes they get impatient if they don’t get immediate positive feedback about that. Some of it is good, but some of it is not so good.
I think that there’s also more pressure on today’s students. I think they feel more pressure to succeed, more pressure to get good grades. The rat race, in that aspect of it, does seem more prevalent today. By and large, Wesleyan’s a great place. I’ve absolutely loved it here. I love the students.
A: I know you’ve talked in class about a few possible ways that the world could end. Do you want to explain a few of those, or what you think will actually happen?
WH: I’m very pessimistic that we will ever make it to anything astronomical that’s going to end the world, like the expansion of the sun, which would vaporize us. Or the expansion of the universe, would separate us so widely and we’d be totally alone. All of those things are so far in the future that my guess is that we’ll be lucky to get that far.
We’ve got in the hands of some crazy people the ability to seriously impact the environment. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to stop all these problems and survive, but the challenges right now facing the next generations are bigger because the power is bigger; the ability to affect things is bigger. If you look at history, how many wars we’ve had, how stuff has gone on…
Instead of just fighting with our fists or with swords or with guns, now we have the ability to fight with nuclear weapons, nuclear processes, radioactivity. It’s going to be a real challenge. That’s kind of pessimistic…We’re counting on your generation. Keep things going for another thirty years, will you?
Astronomically, what might come along that might be interesting would be an impact in the near future, if we get hit by a large asteroid or something like that. We’re not quite at the point where we could do anything about it, but if we had enough lead time—say, if we discovered the orbit and knew it was going to hit fifty years from now—it could be a nice focus [laughs] for developing the space program once again and for everyone on Earth to work together for a common cause. It would be good for people.