As a Writer and a Teacher, He Invites Us to Contemplate the Universe

Professor Charles Liu (Credit: The Graduate Center, CUNY, Alex Irklievski)

By Beth Harpaz
Editor of SUM

As both a writer and a professor, Charles Liu (GC/College of Staten Island, Physics) has devoted much of his career to making astronomy inclusive, inviting, and exciting. His latest book, 30-Second Universe: 50 most significant ideas, theories, principles and events that sum up the field, explains concepts like the Big Bang, gravity, and black holes in elegant, 200-word mini-essays, each designed to be read in half a minute.

He says he strove to present the material “in a way that’s not dumbed down, that’s highly sophisticated, and yet that’s jargon-free, so that anybody who is curious can learn about these things in greater detail, without feeling intimidated or out of their depth.”

That commitment to making astrophysics accessible to anyone with a spark of an interest has also been a hallmark of Liu’s work at CUNY. “When I came to CUNY in 2003, there had not been an astronomy or astrophysics Ph.D. from The Graduate Center doctoral program in decades — a full generation,” he said. “I really wanted to bring astrophysics back to CUNY.”
Working with his colleagues in The Graduate Center physics doctoral program, Liu helped gather a core faculty of researchers to create a University-wide astrophysics group. Now chaired by Professor Timothy Paglione (GC/York College, Physics), CUNY Astro has produced more than a half-dozen Ph.D. students and scores of undergraduate researchers “who have gone on to do great work.”
The program has also attracted more than 15 top-notch professors to CUNY, like K. E. Saavik Ford and Barry McKernan (GC/BMCC, Physics), who are known for their research on black holes. “As soon as we raised the banner at CUNY and said, ‘Hey, the GC physics program now has astrophysics,’ people started coming,” Liu said. “I’m sure this exists in other fields as well, but in astronomy, there is a very strong desire to improve education at the collegiate and doctoral levels and to improve the field overall through diversity, equity, and inclusion. For people who want to combine a strong research career at a major public university with building those positive changes into our field, CUNY provides a home.”

Liu’s research specializes in colliding galaxies, starburst galaxies, and the star formation history of the universe. Before he joined the CUNY faculty he was a staff astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History; he has retained a research associateship there, where his summer research program — which has been funded by the National Science Foundation for 18 consecutive years — is based. His CUNY résumé includes stints running the Macaulay Honors College at the College of Staten Island and the Verrazano School, another CSI honors program.
And he’s had lots of experience writing about science for a general audience. He’s the author of The Handy Astronomer Answer Book, the upcoming edition of The Handy Physics Answer Book, and One Universe: At Home in the Cosmos (co-written with Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Robert Irion), along with a series of dozens of columns over the years for Natural History magazine.
His latest book, 30-Second Universe, co-authored with Karen Masters (Haverford) and Sevil Salur (Rutgers), offers short, readable entries on the basics — how and when the universe began, and Newton’s laws of motion, for example — as well as on complex topics like Higgs bosons and string theory. There’s a glossary for terms like photon and neutrino, along with mini-biographies of scientists like Stephen Hawking, Marie Curie, and Hypatia of Alexandria, a fifth-century astronomer. The book also ponders big questions, including when and how the universe will end, and whether parallel universes might exist.

His writing philosophy, Liu says, is a lot like his teaching philosophy. “I want to communicate to my students the things that matter, and the things that are important, without making them feel that they’re not part of it or that they don’t deserve to own it,” he said. “In any field, whether it’s astrophysics or genetics or opera, you can find people who are aficionados speaking knowingly to one another in their own little code. It preserves their sense of specialness. But I just want to get my students excited about things I’m excited about, to enjoy what I enjoy. It’s not, ‘Hey, I’m really smart.’ It’s, ‘Hey, this is really cool. And we all can learn this.’”

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.

Submitted on: JAN 7, 2020

Category: Astrophysics | Faculty | GCstories | General GC News | Physics