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NMSU astronomy professor brings a new light to the word 'star'

Date: 11/01/2013

Textbooks on stellar atmospheres, an inbox filled with emails regarding research proposals and an autographed image of an Apollo astronaut, are all elements that oftentimes make up an astronomy professor's office.

Chris Churchill, associate professor of astronomy at New Mexico State University, sits at his desk.
Chris Churchill, associate professor of astronomy at New Mexico State University, also plays in a rock band called The Players. (Photo by Dana Beasley)

Chris Churchill, associate professor of astronomy at New Mexico State University, has all of these things. However, he also has a few items uncommon in an academic's workplace.

Behind his door, a small paper is displayed with the signatures of every member of the German rock band, the Scorpions. Safely tucked below that, is his old, front-row ticket to a performance by the Canadian rock group, RUSH, of which he's seen live about 20 times since 1980. Finally, pinned onto a corkboard propped up on his desk, is a newspaper clipping from last August of Churchill playing his bass guitar ? revealing that a telescope isn't the only instrument the professor can handle.

"When I was 7, I knew I wanted to be a rock star," Churchill said. "But everybody told me that was not a dream to follow. So somewhere in my early 20's, I decided to go back to school. I read a book called 'Cosmos' by Carl Sagan ? that was it."

But Churchill didn't fully commit to trading Led Zeppelin in for Neil Armstrong, and Guns and Roses for galaxies and research. Over the years, the professor has kept with his childhood aspirations by performing as a bass guitarist for many local bands, and even founding The Players, a popular local classic rock group that won Graham Central Station's 2012 Battle of the Bands.

Although keeping up with The Players and his after-hours research has become a balancing act, Churchill trudges on, stressing that "music is definitely a passion," and astronomy and music have more similarities than one might think.

"I don't think of science as being different from art," said Churchill. "I think science is an artistic form because ... you have to think up projects on your own. You have to be aware of what's known, what's not known; that's a very creative process. And then when you get the information, you have to paint a picture from it."

The other connection is math. Churchill continues: "Music is actually founded on mathematics in terms of time, and so that appeals to me as well; that you can play with time in a mathematical sense with music, in the same way that mathematics is also the same language of nature."

Alas, Churchill said the mathematics aspect can be a turn-off for many introductory astronomy students.

"When a lot of students take astronomy," he said, "they think of it as this romantic, amazing, majestic thing. And then what happens is they come into class and break it all down into quantifying things, and that involves mathematics, and some people walk away going, 'they took all the majesty out of astronomy for me ? they just turned it into math."

Fortunately, The Players don't have this problem. "We don't go up there and talk about the math in music," he laughed.

To keep students interested, Churchill will occasionally expose them to music by associating certain rock songs with lectures ? encouraging them to keep their minds open to gaining knowledge from even the most unexpected places.

Despite his musical lectures and the rock 'n' roll paraphernalia adorning his office door, Churchill has revealed his alter ego to his students in other ways.

"I'm shamelessly asking them to come to my shows now and again just to get more people to come out," he joked. "I think they kind of chuckle to themselves."

Since his employment began with the university in 2003, the San Francisco native has expanded his musical horizons in the southwest community, while increasing the world's cosmological perspective through his research on the evolution and assembly of galaxies.

To conduct his research, Churchill is currently using the Keck Telescope in Hawaii, the 3.5-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory, located in Sunspot, N.M., and the Hubble Space Telescope.

This past summer, Churchill and his research group were awarded 110 90-minute observational orbits using Hubble, from NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute, to study the evolution of galaxies.

According to Churchill, a typical proposal requests 5-10 orbits, so to be granted a program of this magnitude is a "small dream come true," he said.

"I think the most interesting part of the job is that everyday you're thinking about the cosmos. A day doesn't go by when you're not thinking about how incredibly big the universe is, how incredibly small the earth is, and it's wonderful because it keeps your mind in perspective in ways I don't think commonly would happen to a person," said Churchill. "I just really love what I'm doing."

Written by Dana Beasley

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