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The New Explorers: Sumner Starrfield

June 07, 2006

It might seem that with a name like Sumner Starrfield, the Arizona State University Regents Professor of physics and astronomy would have known his future was written in the stars.

The truth is Starrfield, who was recognized by the Arizona Board of Regents in 2002, never set out to be an astronomer. Instead, his career followed a winding path before the planets aligned to bring him to ASU to establish its fledgling astronomy program. Thirty-four years later, Starrfield can look back at the program's incredible growth and his own research that has contributed much to the field of astronomy.

As a child, Starrfield never dreamed he would one day explore the edges of the universe through the lens of a telescope. Instead of peering through an eyepiece at the night sky, he was exploring the universe in his own way, poring through science books and learning about the natural world.

“I wasn't a kid with a telescope or anything, but I was always interested in science,” Starrfield says. “It was really some of the grandeur of science in astronomy that drew me in.”

Starrfield's love affair with science would ultimately lead him to study mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley. A roommate raved to Starrfield about an astronomy course he had taken, piquing his interest and eventually prompting him to take the class, too. It was in that class, Starrfield says, that his intense fascination with the stars began.

While at UC-Berkeley, he met many professors who encouraged his interests and helped him along his way. Starrfield even took an undergraduate astrophysics class from the late science writer and Tonight Show regular Carl Sagan.

Another professor who supported Starrfield on his journey is Jack Brandt, who took him under his wing by giving Starrfield a summer job in his lab and helping him get into graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles. After earning both his master's and doctorate degrees at UCLA, Starrfield took a teaching job at Yale. He worked there as a professor for four years before going to work for IBM writing astronomy-related computer code – programming he still uses today for research.

But Starrfield couldn't resist the allure of academia, and soon began seeking a job as an astronomy professor. He found an open position at ASU in 1972 and jumped at the chance to don the role of his mentors and start an astronomy program at the university.

With his wife and child – and one more on the way – Starrfield moved to Arizona. Back then, he recalled, the university was very different.

“There were half the students and half the faculty than there are today,” Starrfield recalls. “You could park your car next to your building in a dirt lot.”

But like the supernovas Starrfield studies, ASU exploded in terms of growth and vision, enabling Starrfield to study bigger and bolder problems in astronomy. Likewise, he said, the field of astronomy has undergone tremendous growth in recent years.

“I like to solve problems, and in astronomy there are lots and lots of problems,” Starrfield says. “Nonetheless, there have been amazing revelations in our understanding of space, the planets and the universe. It's an exciting time to be an astronomer, and we carry that excitement to the students.”

Away from the classroom, Starrfield's current research interests have him studying the properties of exploding stars called white dwarf supernovas. These occur when white dwarf stars – low- to medium-mass stars that have expended their fuel and died – obtain gas from a nearby companion star called a red giant. When enough gas accumulates a supernova occurs, blowing gas out into space and making the star appear 100 million times brighter.

Because white dwarf supernovae appear to behave similarly, astronomers use them as standards by which to measure distances throughout the universe. Starrfield's research looks into what actually occurs when these stars explode.

He also studies smaller explosions called novae, which can be observed on white dwarfs. One particular white dwarf nova is part of a star duo known as RS Ophiuchi that explodes about every 20 years. RS Ophi is of particular interest to Starrfield, who belongs to an international team of observers that closely monitors the nova’s behavior. The team expects to learn more about the structure and end life stages of red giants through these studies.

Starrfield has been continuously funded by the National Science Foundation since 1974. Additionally, he has received several grants from NASA and served on a number of committees for various NASA programs like the Chandra X-ray Observatory satellite and the FUSE space-based telescope. He also currently serves on teams dedicated to defining the scientific characteristics of two cutting-edge satellites – the Advanced Compton Explorer, which detects radiation emitted by supernovae in the form of gamma rays; and Destiny, the main U.S. research laboratory attached to the International Space Station.

While his research might seem far out to the casual observer, Starrfield brings it down to Earth by employing Sagan's motto that we are all “star-stuff.” Indeed, humans owe their existence to materials that originated in stars.

“The explosions of white dwarf supernovae contribute most of the iron in the universe,” Starrfield says. “Iron is a necessary component of hemoglobin, which we need in order to use oxygen.”

Part of the challenge of teaching astronomy is getting students to see the relevance to things happening millions of light-years away. To this end, Starrfield draws upon the majesty of the universe and where our planet and its inhabitants fit into the larger picture.

“People are interested in the universe,” Starrfield said. “They want to know about the evolution of our own sun and solar system, about the galaxy and universe and where it all came from. That's what science is all about.”