Whatcom’s guide to the universe

by Andrew Edwards

Horizon Reporter

Speaking quickly, moving about the front of the room and drawing on the whiteboard, Brad Snowder guides his Astronomy 100 class through the mechanisms and history of our universe.

The high-ceilinged classroom is large and open, like the vacuum of space, with rows of wide tables occupied by students copiously taking notes to keep up with the pace of the lecture.  The walls are adorned with photos of brightly-colored astronomical bodies and the cardinal directions are marked on each side of the room, as well as this classroom’s exact global coordinates.

The focal point of this space, a three-sectioned whiteboard which nearly covers the entire wall, is dynamic and constantly changing, like a live-action slideshow, as Snowder draws model after model of each specific concept.

The measure of the universe seems almost unfathomable, with some distances measured in billions of light-years, yet Snowder casually describes the layout of space as if giving directions to a driver.  This massive scale, said Snowder, is at the root of his interest in astronomy.

“It is what it is, it’s immutable,” said Snowder.  “We can discover it, but we can’t screw it up.”  He said the night sky has always intrigued him and he can remember stargazing since he was 8 years old.

“I’d lay on the grass and grab ahold, and look at the sky and pretend I was looking down,” Snowder said.

This interest in the night sky led Snowder to building his own telescopes, which “is like having fruit from your own garden,” he said.  He even helped build the world’s largest portable telescope, which was 41 inches in diameter.  Just grinding the mirrors for it was a big undertaking, since “it took several people just to push the tool around,” said Snowder.

Although an amateur astronomer for many years, Snowder did not attend college until later in life, at the age of 36, “with remedial math,” he said.  Before then, he worked as a “technical take-down technician,” removing trees from dangerous locations like between power lines.

“I wanted to take physics,” he said, since “that’s what astronomy is all about.”  He began his teaching career at Whatcom Community College in 1996 and started teaching at Western Washington University five years later.

While a lot of material is squeezed into each of his class sessions, the mood is always kept light as Snowder intersperses his lectures with the occasional science joke.

“Blue stars live fast and die young, like James Dean,” he said, eliciting laughs from his crowd.  All stars are constantly moving away from the Earth, Snowder explained, “like it’s something we said.”

This teaching style is reflective of Snowder’s experience with entertaining a crowd.  While living in Spokane, he once produced a public access TV show, “Keystone Astronomers at Large,” which he described as “a non-serious look at astronomy.”  The content of this show “ranged from puppet shows to expeditions,” he said.

In a similar vein, Snowder continues his practice of promoting astronomy to the public as he manages the planetarium at Western.  Drawing from his experiences in different fields, he designs and delivers the planetarium’s presentations, as well as maintaining its equipment.

Snowder still manages to find time for many hobbies on top of his busy academic schedule, like woodworking and casting things out of bronze.  He also enjoys photography, a subject he has once taught, especially astrophotography, although it can be very challenging.

“Nothing is more demanding in photography than trying to take pictures of stars in the dark,” Snowder said.

While juggling so many responsibilities might seem difficult, Snowder seems unaffected.  “You have to change hats a lot,” he said calmly.  The key is following disciplines that relate to each other, he said.

To put it a different way, Snowder said, “humans compartmentalize knowledge, but the universe doesn’t.”

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