NASA astrophysicist, MU alum speaks about space research

Thursday, September 27, 2012 | 8:02 p.m. CDT; updated 10:57 p.m. CDT, Thursday, September 27, 2012

COLUMBIA — Somewhere in space, there is the Crab Pulsar. The pulsar is about the size of Columbia and weighs more than the sun.

"To put it in perspective, a cubic centimeter weighs about a 100 million tons," NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center senior astrophysicist Gerald Fishman said Thursday. "Nothing would ever support it. It would fall into the center of the Earth."

Fishman, a St. Louis native who graduated from MU with a bachelor's degree in physics in 1965, returned to MU on Thursday and spoke to 170 people about space research. The lecture was part of the Lloyd B. Thomas Lecture and Performance Series.

Fishman began by noting that astronomy is an observational science, while astrophysics is an explanatory one. Fishman — who earned his doctorate in space science from Rice University — said he has spent the majority of his professional career studying gamma rays.

"Gamma-ray bursts are the most distant and most powerful explosions in the universe," he said Thursday.

Fishman explained that if there had been a gamma-ray burst even thousands of miles from Earth, it could have disrupted the Earth enough to cause the dinosaurs to go extinct.

In 1974, Fishman began working at NASA and eventually became the principal investigator for the Burst and Transient Source Experiment. He spent his time watching for gamma-ray bursts. 

"We didn't know where they were going to go off or when we had to look, so we had to look at the entire sky all the time," Fishman said. 

Part of the project was sending Burst and Transient Source Equipment into space in 1991, where it stayed until 2000. One of the mission specialists was Linda Godwin, who earned a master's and doctorate at MU and is now a professor at the school.

Godwin, who attended Thursday's talk, said she thought the lecture helped remind students that there is life after college. 

"This is our universe," she said. "We're learning more about it every day." 

Peter Pfeifer, chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, said it was great to see so many alumni from the department go on and do great things with each other. For instance, Fishman had taken classes with Thomas — the former professor for whom the lecture series is named — while attending MU, and then came back to speak as one of the featured lecturers.

Pfeifer also said he was pleased with Thursday's turnout. 

"We need an informed public and informed politicians, so we need this type of outreach," he said. "We need to train as many scientists and engineers for the benefit of the country since there is such a shortage."

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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