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Star-gazing students at IU Northwest learn about the cosmos from Adler Planetarium astronomer Larry Ciupik

Adjunct professor teaches students practical applications of an often-esoteric science

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IU Northwest adjunct professor of astronomy Larry Ciupik is an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium.

Some of the most unique career aspirations, the ones that fill the fantasies of young girls and boys, tend to go the way of pigtails and pogo sticks as the college years draw near. Levelheaded students eventually trade their childhood imaginings for more attainable ways of making a living. Aspiring pop stars and would-be race car drivers become nurses, business executives and teachers.

Larry Ciupik is an exception. The IU Northwest adjunct professor of astronomy has been enthralled with all things celestial since he was eight, and he has never looked back. Since the day he built his own telescope in his Park Ridge, Ill. basement, Ciupik never wavered on his dream to become an astronomer.

Ciupik’s job at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium makes him a terrific asset in the Chemistry, Physics and Astronomy Department. His students have a unique opportunity to learn directly from a veteran scientist who lives and breathes astronomy research every day.

It seems that a full-time astronomer never has a dull day at work. Over the past 40 years, Ciupik’s responsibilities at the planetarium have run the gamut from exhibit planning to high-profile research. He gives talks, answers questions, judges science fairs, consults on exhibits, and more. He is frequently sought out by the media for his expertise on such marvels as solstices and eclipses.

Most of all, Ciupik does research. Currently, he is immersed in a project involving a gamma ray telescope known as VERITAS, which stands for Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System. Located south of Tucson, Ariz., VERITAS is comprised of four 40-foot telescopes that help a group of about 100 scientists study the physics behind black holes.

While studying gamma and cosmic rays might seem esoteric, Ciupik says there are practical implications. Cosmic rays, for example, are associated with changes in humanity, as they can cause mutations in animals, plants and humans. Ciupik prides himself on bringing this kind of practical application of the science to his classroom instruction.

This is perhaps best illustrated by Ciupik’s role as an expert witness in court cases. Forensic astronomy came into play when Ciupik once helped to crack a case. Using the height of a dog’s shadow in a photograph, he determined the altitude of the sun, thereby determining that the photo could only have been taken on a particular day in April or August, not on Mother’s Day, as the defendant had claimed.

“The photo showed me shadows from two directions. If you know the shadows from two directions, you can get the time of day but also the date of the year.” In a nutshell, he said, “the shadow of a dog convicted someone of perjury.”

Before the “dog story,” as he calls it, Ciupik’s teaching had always been more traditional. Today, his approach is more practical and applicable to everyday life. His lessons about moon phases and sun altitude, for instance, are helpful in navigation.

Ciupik said he concentrates on firing students’ imaginations and making science “not boring.” Using the Socratic method, for example, and engaging in discussions about current events are some of the ways that he tries to show students that science can indeed be a practical career choice. Astronomy is related to many other fields, he said, like forensics and environmental sciences.

Ciupik has taught many students over the years at many universities, but he admitted to a particular fondness for those who attend IU Northwest. In fact, he commutes 45 miles one way to teach here.

Ciupik said that IU Northwest students, with their varied ages and life circumstances, tend to be more motivated learners than those with whom he’s interacted at other schools. Many of them are returning scholars who typically are more engaged and intrigued, and therefore demand more of their instructors, he explained.

Ciupik earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in astronomy from Northwestern University. He generally teaches The Solar System (A100) and Stars and Galaxies (A105) at IU Northwest.


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Emily Banas
Office of Marketing and Communications

Erika Rose
Office of Marketing and Communications

Related Links

Adler Planetarium

IU Northwest Dept. of Chemistry/Physics/Astronomy

Additional Article Photos

Photo provided
Larry Ciupik's job at Adler runs the gamut -- from talks to planetarium visitors to high-profile research.