Physics prof gives details on observatory


Alakananada Mookerjee

On the days he has the blessings of the weather gods, he likes to hold his classes under a clear, starlit sky. On other days, he’s content with meeting his students in the indoor settings of a studio.

He designs telescopes for a hobby and reads sci-fi when he’s unwinding. If this sounds like someone straight out of Star Trek’s Star Fleet Academy, then there’s good reason for that.

Dr. Larry Browning, Professor of Physics at South Dakota State University’s Physics Department shares a cosmic bond with objects celestial. He’s a teacher of Astronomy and an amateur astronomer.

The Collegian caught up with him a few days ago – quite in the stargazer’s natural habitat – while he was out with his students scanning the Brookings sky for a glimpse of Jupiter and Saturn.

Browning moved to the hustle-bustle of upstate New York at the age of 18 as a freshman in Syracuse University. After acquiring a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, he headed to Indiana.

His destination was the prestigious Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., where he shifted academic gears of sorts by earning a master’s and doctoral degree in a hard-core science discipline, physics.

Before donning the mantle of a pedagogue, his scholarly pursuit had taken him on an intercontinental tour to Liege, Belgium and Pisa, Italy, where he spent three months each. He was on the last leg on his academic marathon when he took a teaching job at Marquette University, Wisc. in the mid-1980s.

Browning teaches ‘Descriptive Astronomy’ to a class of 120.

“My course is taught using the DDN (Digital Dakota Network). Some of my students are in the studio, some are on-campus, some off-campus watching the class on television and the Internet,” Browning said. “I once had a student who used to attend the class from her living room in Belfus, on the Western extremity of the state. If she had a question, she would raise her hand, I would see her on the TV monitor; ask her what her question was. My classes are broadcast live, as recordings and streaming video.”

Browning has been one of the brains behind the SDSU observatory due to be operational by the summer of 2004.

“It was some years ago that we thought of building an observatory that could be remotely controlled by a computer since it gets go cold up here. The dome has already been completed and it should be up this summer. It’s out near Oakwood Lake,” he said.

It’s not just a study of stars, supernova and spiral galaxies that are Browning’s claim to fame. He has another, one that is less sublime however.

He’s had a cannibal for a neighbor. None other than Jeffrey Dahmer, the notorious Milwaukee cannibal who feasted on acid-dissolved rotting human remains and preserved severed male heads in refrigerators.

Speaking animatedly, Browning said, “Soon after I had taken up a faculty position at Marquette University, I bought a house close to the university, so that I could walk to work. It wasn’t until after I arrived in Brookings that I learnt who I had for a neighbor.”

Hard to say if this has anything to do with his stars or his style, but Browning’s life-stories certainly pack a punch. Browning had more action coming his way when he first started teaching astronomy at SDSU.

Walking down memory lane to 1991, he said, “The broadcast of my astronomy class was in progress when it was interrupted by the first Gulf War. President Bush came online announcing that any minute now, he would take over the airwaves. And sure enough, he did.”

His hobbies? Well, when he’s not teaching, he loves to play with his two kids, Joseph, 2 and Emily, 7. A classical music aficionado, Mozart and Bach being his favorite composers, he also enjoys watching television.

He met his wife, Della, in the Hilton Briggs Library where love blossomed when he was working on a book.

“She was then working as an acquisition librarian and she would help me get the books I needed.”