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Roger Knacke

Roger Knacke

Roger Knacke

Penn State Erie

I think I became interested in astronomy on a camping trip when my scoutmaster, Hank Webster, in El Centro, California pointed out Orion, and showed me how to recognize some of the other constellations. Shortly thereafter, I saw Saturn and its rings through a telescope that an amateur, whose name I probably never knew, set up on a sidewalk near my junior high school. I remember too, the comets, Arend-Roland and Mrkos in 1957, and the impression that they made in the dark skies of the Imperial Valley in California then.

I think I was hooked, although I took several side trips before becoming an astronomer. I studied physics in college and in graduate school, but after some time researching a project that I couldn't get very interested in, I switched back to astronomy, and have been with it ever since. I remember how generous and supportive the Astronomy faculty at Berkeley was, and the excellent education even in the midst of the turmoil that beset Berkeley in the 1960s.

I post-doc'ed at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and then joined the faculty at the University at Stony Brook in New York, where I remained for many years. There I was privileged to work with five graduate students, Alan Tokunaga, Erick Young, Keith Noll, Tim Brooke, and Sergio Fajardo-Acosta, who have since made careers in astronomy. Then restlessness or wanderlust hit again, as well as an opportunity to do more with undergraduate education, and I became Director of the School of Science at Behrend College at the Erie campus of Penn State University. While this is an administrative job, it's also been an opportunity to learn more about biology, computer science, chemistry, geoscience, mathematics, and physics, and to help develop them into first-rate undergraduate programs. I still find some time to do some astronomy, and to teach.

I've done only a little extragalactic research - infrared polarization observations of quasars, Seyfert galaxies, and BL Lac objects in the 1970's. Most of my research has been in interstellar and circumstellar matter and planetary science. I learned about Mrk 205 and NGC 4319, and the controversy surrounding them, as a graduate student. It's been fun to come back to these galaxies, at least peripherally, after many years. The controversy about the distance to Mrk 205 seems to have dropped from the mainstream of astronomy, with just a handful of remaining adherents to the position that redshifts don't always determine distance (I'm not one). I'm not sure that the new image will change that.

At Penn State Erie, we have a long-running series of "Open House Nights in Astronomy." Monthly public talks are followed by astronomical observing, when the weather permits. I'm continually surprised and gratified by the public's response. People are very interested in science when it's presented in ways accessible to them, and are strongly supportive of NASA and programs like the Hubble Space Telescope. It's important that astronomy maintains its openness to society, and not become an insulated academic discipline. And maybe in our audience there'll be a young kid who'll be turned on by seeing Orion or Saturn.