Planets, Stars, Galaxies, and the Universe

Meet the Instructor, Chris Palma


Welcome to ASTRO 801!

I want to take this opportunity to introduce myself, since many of us will not have the opportunity to meet face to face (although you are all very welcome to come visit me if you happen to be local or visit campus for any reason).

My name is Christopher Palma, and I have a great interest in astronomy. My passion for studying space began when I was in elementary school and continues today. I grew up in New Jersey, but made my way to Pennsylvania to start formally studying astronomy and astrophysics as an undergraduate at Penn State in 1990. What won me over to Penn State was a brochure they sent to prospective students pointing out that Penn State at the time operated the largest telescope east of the Mississippi. At that time, my knowledge of astronomy (and meteorology) was pretty basic, and I had no idea that central Pennsylvania is a pretty awful place for an observatory, given our fraction of nights with clear skies. I did get to spend one night at Penn State's Black Moshannon Observatory on one of our few clear nights, and after four years, I graduated with my bachelor's degree in both Astronomy & Astrophysics and Physics in 1994. After leaving State College, I moved to Virginia and completed a Ph.D in Astronomy at the University of Virginia in 2001. My research expertise is in the field of observational astronomy, specifically in the study of the globular cluster and dwarf galaxy satellites of the Milky Way. I have authored or co-authored over 19 articles in refereed astronomy journals, mostly on the topic of the interaction between the Milky Way Galaxy and these satellite star clusters and galaxies. I have a wide interest in all areas of observational astronomy: for example, I have also studied the most powerful galaxies in the universe and discovered what was the second largest active galaxy known to exist (it recently got demoted to third largest).

radio image of NVSS 2146+82
NVSS 2146+82 - the third largest active galaxy in the Universe, as imaged by the VLA

To me, one of the most exciting parts of being an astronomer is traveling to observatories to use modern, world-class instruments to study the sky. I have used many of the most sophisticated telescopes in the world, including the Very Large Array of radio telescopes (seen in the movie Contact), one of the two Keck telescopes in Hawaii, several telescopes at the Las Campanas and Cerro Tololo observatories in Chile, and Penn State's Hobby-Eberly Telescope. A project that I helped lead at Penn State using data from the Hubble Space Telescope was covered in the press and appeared on CNN, National Geographic, and on the Internet as an "Astronomy Picture of the Day."

When I was studying at Virginia, I discovered that I had a great interest in teaching astronomy, and I took every opportunity to teach and to take part in informal outreach events, such as running public observing nights at UVa's two observatories. My volunteer science outreach career led me to a wide variety of experiences, such as giving presentations on telescopes and meteorites in several Washington D.C. public schools, talking as a guest astronomy expert on a local AM radio station's call-in talk show, working on Sunspot observations with students in a summer science enrichment program, and participating in two nighttime special observing events to show the public the bright comets of 1995 (Hyakutake) and 1996 (Hale-Bopp). As strange as this might sound, not many astronomers spend a lot of time doing backyard observing, but I love to use small telescopes and take every opportunity to look at the sky from the darkest sites I can find.

I moved back to State College and returned to Penn State in 2001 as a postdoctoral scholar to do research on compact groups of galaxies. I wanted to make a career out of outreach, though, and I was subsequently appointed as the first Outreach Fellow for the Eberly College of Science. As part of the Outreach Office in the College, I spent most of my time teaching astronomy to pre-college audiences in programs like class field trips to the Penn State planetarium and summer camps, or to general public audiences, during programs like AstroFest, which we hold each year during the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. While I was an Outreach Fellow, I authored two Astronomy courses (10 & 11) for the Penn State World Campus, and I co-authored an online section of Astro 1 for Penn State students that is currently taught by my colleague, Professor Jane Charlton. Early in 2008, I was promoted to be the Associate Director of Outreach for the Eberly College of Science. In this new position, I worked with faculty from all disciplines in the college to promote science with outside audiences via a variety of outreach programs. While I am still active in astronomy outreach, these days I am working full time as an instructional faculty member and the head of the undergraduate program in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics. Because of my background in teaching astronomy online, I signed on to write and teach Astro 801 for your program, and I am delighted to have this opportunity.

Outside of my work at Penn State, I am pretty actively involved in recreational sports. Although I am far from the tallest person in town, I have played volleyball for more than 20 years and my team is a perennial playoff team in the Centre County Parks & Rec League. My wife is very active with Special Olympics of Centre County, and she and I both volunteer with the local Special Olympics softball team and have had some wonderful experiences at the Summer Games held at Penn State. As an alumnus of the university, I am also an avid fan of all of our sports teams, and you can usually find me at football games or volleyball matches cheering on our student-athletes.

I hope that you enjoy your astronomy course and achieve the goals that you set when you registered. If you have any questions about the content of this course or about anything astronomy related that you see in the media you should never hesitate to ask. My goal in teaching this course is to share the exciting discoveries that astronomers are making every day and to instill in you an interest in the science that will lead you to watch the occasional clip on CNN about the rings of Saturn or read a story on the Hubble Space Telescope in the New York Times.