Stellar astrophysicist Keivan Stassun talks about total solar eclipse, scientific wonder on ‘The Zeppos Report’

For astrophysicists, star gazing is far from a whimsical pastime.

In the latest episode of The Zeppos Report, Keivan Stassun, Stevenson Professor of Physics and professor of astronomy, describes his field as one that requires a mix of extraordinary patience and uninhibited curiosity.

“When I’m doing astronomy, I’m having a great time, but it’s not particularly spiritual. In fact, some of it is quite dull. But, there are those moments … those punctuated, indescribable moments,” Stassun says in an interview with Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos.

In the podcast, Zeppos asks Stassun about one of those defined moments: the total solar eclipse passing through Nashville on Aug. 21. As a stellar astrophysicist, Stassun has traversed the globe to observe the contents of the sky, but this will be his first in-person viewing of a total solar eclipse. He’ll be downtown at a private party taking in a glimpse of history.

“[rquote]At the moment of totality, it becomes a singularly human experience,” Stassun said.[/rquote]

Stassun often crafts spaces where people from various backgrounds find connection through shared experiences. For more than a decade, he co-directed the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program. He is now the senior associate dean for graduate education and research in the College of Arts and Science. As of this spring, the Bridge program has produced 27 Ph.D. graduates in STEM-related fields. One of his students in the program, Joey Rodriguez, recently made a record-setting discovery of the longest-lasting stellar eclipse currently known.

Professor Keivan Stassun (left) and Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos. (Pat Slattery/Vanderbilt)
Professor Keivan Stassun (left) and Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos. (Pat Slattery/Vanderbilt)

Stassun reflects upon the salient time in college when he found his interest in astronomy transforming to experience. He wants to provide that same opportunity to the students he now teaches, guiding them as they progress from “being good at science” to becoming actively engaged in the scientific process.

Zeppos described Stassun’s sentiment as the crux of the Vanderbilt academic experience.

“You’re going to discover new knowledge with me,” Zeppos said. “You’re going to be a doer of it, not a watcher of it.”

When considering the upcoming total solar eclipse, Stassun points out that being a “watcher” is certainly appropriate. “I will be there with my fellow hipsters, gazing skyward,” he said.

The podcast is available on SoundCloud, Stitcher, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube and The Zeppos Report website.