May 19, 2022 | ,

A Practical Guide to the Cosmos: Interview with Chief Astronomer, Derrick Pitts, of The Franklin Institute 

Coffee and the Cosmos Photo 1

Have you ever taken the time to wonder about what makes up our vast cosmos? Or, maybe you’re curious about the moon, comets, and the seemingly endless expanse of space. That’s where we come in.

We had the opportunity to connect with Derrick Pitts, Chief Astronomer at The Franklin Institute, to hear all about how amazing astronomy is, and how accessible the cosmos are… no telescopes needed.

Keep reading to see what Derrick had to say about his rewarding career and passion for astronomy (and check out the end of this article for special deets on how to meet Derrick—and win prizes—this summer)!

Derrick Pitts is the current Chief Astronomer and Director of the Fels Planetarium at The Franklin Institute. He’s also been a NASA Solar System Ambassador since 2009 and serves as the “Astrobiology Ambassador” for the NASA/MIRS/UNCF Special Program Corporation’s Astrobiology Partnership Program. He appears regularly in the media as a science content expert including appearances on the “Colbert Report” on Comedy Central and “The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson” on CBS. 

Your motto is “Eat, breathe, do science. Sleep later.” This motto seems to have informed so much of your extraordinary career as Chief Astronomer and Director of the Fels Planetarium at The Franklin Institute, as well as the many platforms where you “do science” and introduce the world to the cosmos. What was the initial inspiration for this motto, and how do you continue to embrace its meaning every day?

The STEM world is endlessly fascinating. There are so many amazing phenomena occurring all the time and everything is so interconnected. I’m never satisfied with whatever I’ve learned—I always want to know more. At the same time, I always want to share the beauty of STEM as it’s manifested in our world, and in the universe. One of the most important parts of the sharing, though, is helping everyone understand that they already hold an innate ability to understand science at some level. Just like not all of us are cut out to be baseball stars or whatever, not all of us will become research scientists. However, that shouldn’t stop us from pursuing our curiosity about the world around us, including STEM.

It’s NOT to be left just for the science nerds, it’s for all of us to investigate and enjoy to whatever extent works for us. And besides, why should the research scientists have all the fun and be the only ones to enjoy the feeling that comes from an ‘aha!’ moment?

Did you always have a passion for astronomy? When did you first realize that this was the career path for you?

I have always had a passion for astronomy, space science, and space exploration. I knew this was my career path in grade school!

What has been the most rewarding experience in your career?

I’m fortunate to have many rewarding experiences in my career from meeting giants in the field, to visiting the most advanced observatories, to flying objects aboard various spacecraft, BUT, the most rewarding has been facilitating the experience of discovery in STEM for so many others.

Specifically, a three-year-old little girl who exclaimed, “It’s so beautiful!” when she saw the moon up close for the first time through a telescope I had set up at a neighborhood star party in North Philly. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Astronomy and space exploration are more accessible online than ever before. How can those interested in learning more about the cosmos explore and learn about all that’s out there?

Figure out what excites you most about astronomy and space exploration and check out the resources focused on those topics. Then find the communicator—the program host—whose clarity of style, level of content, and attention to accuracy work for you. There’s someone out there for you—trust me!

Finally, get some “first-person” experience: look through a telescope at an astronomy club star party, see a lunar eclipse, go to a total solar eclipse, go see aurorae, go to a rocket launch, take an online astronomy course, or even take on a Citizen Science research project.

In Philly, it can be difficult to navigate the night sky. Where are some spots around the region that you’d recommend for sky watching?

French Creek State Park, Belleplain State Forest, or Cherry Springs State Park; any rural place 50+ miles away from an urban center, where a dark night sky can be found. But if you can’t get out, surprising views are possible without a telescope even under city lights: Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus, many bright stars and my personal favorite, International Space Station!

For someone who is passionate about astronomy and interested in pursuing this as a career path, but might not have a science background, what opportunities are out there for them, and what resources would you recommend they review to learn more?

If you want a career in science, you’ll need science training—I would suggest starting there. Check out what a career in astronomy can be like at resources like AUI or The American Astronomical Society.

If you were to offer ONE piece of advice to a college student interested in pursuing a career in science, what would it be?

Find something you think is super exciting in STEM and go for that. Don’t be intimidated or limited by convention, tradition, obligation or expectation. YOLO!

SURPRISE! Want to MEET Derrick? We’ve got something big to share…

On Thursday, June 23, we’ll be continuing our conversation with Derrick on our Instagram Live for a “Coffee and the Cosmos” chat!

Join us on @campusphilly LIVE to learn all about the cosmos—including the best spots for stargazing in Philly—and how you can become a space genius. Plus, the first 50 people to sign up for this event will receive a $3 Dunkin gift card! 

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