Love of Astronomy Brings Caltech Professor to SoPas

Talks to Marengo Students About Profession


Inspiring the next generation of scientists is one of the key factors drawing Professor Dr. Andrew Howard into the field of astronomy.

Today, the South Pasadena resident is among the faculty at California Institute of Technology, better known as Caltech, where he has an opportunity to develop the most brilliant minds at a university primarily devoted to the instruction of technical arts and applied sciences.

With an opportunity to teach, hanging onto his every word last week was a younger generation, as Howard joined a dozen guest speakers sharing the knowledge of their professions at Marengo Elementary School’s Science Night, an annual event designed to spark an interest in science with hands-on, kid-friendly experiments.

While others talked about cells, robotics and a myriad of other discoveries, including clouds and rainbows, Howard’s field of expertise for the many students and parents who visited classroom 6, focused on planets as he took them on a simulated tour of the solar system.

Thousands of stars are visible to the naked eye, some millions of light years away, was all it took for the South Pasadena resident to be astounded by the natural showcase to become interested in the field of astronomy as a child. Howard was one of those kids who grew up enjoying science in the classroom. He studied physics in college and grad school, and became an astronomer about a decade ago.

“I’ve been interested in planets in our solar system and in other solar systems for a long time,” he explained, noting in his daily work, “We try to discover and analyze them, figure out what they are made of to see if they are similar to the earth.”

That’s what brought him to Caltech, where he is a professor doing research this year on planets. Coming to Southern California from the University of Hawaii, Howard and his wife, Sarah, have two children, Calla, 5, who will enter kindergarten in the fall and Ian, 8, a third grader at Marengo Elementary School. While in Hawaii, he taught an intro astronomy class, the solar system for grad students and a class on a particular kind of planet called super-Earths. Prior to working in Hawaii, Howard worked in the Astronomy Department at U.C. Berkeley.

While it might be difficult for some to give up the good life of living in Hawaii, Howard and his family like the small town feel of living in South Pasadena just fine, noting that the “schools are great” and the proximity to the Caltech campus made the town an ideal choice.

For Howard, to think beyond Earth, to look beyond the planet he calls home and study the universe as a career holds a certain mystique. Working in Southern California among some of the most gifted scientists at Caltech was difficult to pass up.

During Marengo’s Science Night program, the fascination grew among the young, curious students captivated by his line of work while many inquisitive minds peppered him with questions. Interactive, Howard asked what their favorite planets were, what they are made of and touched on a myriad areas of the astronomy field, amazed by their knowledge of outer space.

When asked how many planets are in the universe, he responded, “We think that almost every star has its own planets. There are 100 billion stars in the galaxy, so at least that many.”

The fascination of astronomy for many is “that planets are places and you can imagine going there,” he explained. “You can get transported there. Not all the other sciences are personal in that way.”

During his series of talks at Marengo School, Howard told the kids, “Believe it or not my job is to find planets. It’s a pretty fun job,” before showing them all the planets that orbit the sun – Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Venus is the hottest planet because it’s closest to the sun. “Mercury is closer to the sun, but Venus is slightly hotter because it has a thick atmosphere that acts like a blanket (global warming),” he explained. Planets are also made rocks and gases, which the bright, young students pointed out, prompting Howard to ask, “Are you guys going to astronomy school?”

Asking his final question, the Caltech researcher wanted to know which planets can support life in the solar system. Earth, certainly, noting the obvious before one youngster insisted living on any planet might be possible “if you’re wearing all that gear and stuff,” meaning what an astronaut would don for a mission into outer space.

“Yeah, maybe, if you went to REI,” said a laughing Howard, giving the benefit of the doubt.

The possibility exists that life could be supported on Mars and the moons that orbit around Jupiter and Saturn. In his daily discoveries, Howard examines if there are other Earths, how did our solar system form and are there other planetary systems out there?

When it comes to planets, Earth is Howard’s favorite “because I live here,” he told the students. Sparking some amusement, one child said, “Earth is my favorite because it’s where all the good restaurants are located,” when Howard asked: “What is your favorite planet?”

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