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Faculty Spotlight: Hugh Crowl

“When I was six I wanted to be an astronaut…that’s not so uncommon a dream, is it?” says physics and astronomy faculty Hugh Crowl. “I fell into physics because it seemed interesting enough. I drifted along a little bit…”

Crowl has been at Bennington College for eight years, though teaching was not the path he thought he’d take when he first embarked on the journey to understand the universe. While physics is what introduced him to this passion, there was not an immediate transition to his calling for astronomy. It was not until his junior year of college at Wesleyan University that he took astronomy and fell in love with the pursuit to fathom the universe. He appreciated how astronomy was connected to physics; after all, as Crowl points out, “astronomy is physics in space.”

He later attended Yale University for graduate school, earning his MS, MPhil, PhD. His postdoctoral work was conducted with the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Hampshire College, and Columbia University. This is where he explored his research most.

He walks me through his research:

“One thing that is remarkable about astronomy is that we don’t do experiments, there’s no such thing as doing an astronomy experiment. You only have what the universe sends to you through light. And there’s always this question of ‘how big do we start?’ Because you can start everything in astronomy with the universe. So, galaxies. Galaxies are the biggest, self contained chunks of things in the universe. They’re big collections of gas and stars and dust and dark matter. One of the things that is interesting about galaxies is that when you look at them, they change over time. They change over a period of millions of years, so you can’t actually look through the telescope and watch one change through the lens. One of the things we can do is we can look really, really far away from earth and because the light takes time to reach us from those objects, by looking really far away we’re seeing the objects as they existed a really long time ago. So we can do this trick to look really far out and see how objects looked 12 billion years ago, sometimes 13 billion years ago, it gets harder as you get farther away because the light had a long time to spread out over the universe. The idea is that by looking really, really far away, you see galaxies as they existed long ago. What you notice is that galaxies don’t look the same today as they did a long time ago. The question that a lot of astronomers want to know is ‘Why? Why do galaxies look different today than they did in the past?’ 

“So we start out really big, talking about the universe. Then we talk about galaxies, and now we’re talking about galaxy evolution: how galaxies change over time. If you watch this evolution, you see that galaxies change differently depending on the environment they’re in–whether there are a lot of other galaxies around them or not. Whether it’s a sort of urban environment, suburban environment, or rural environment. And it turns out that galaxies in these urban environments, where there are lots of galaxies on top of each other and lots of action happening, it’s hard on the galaxies. So, again, one of the questions we have is ‘Why? Why is that hard for them? What are the things that explain why galaxies have a harder time in dense environments?’

“One of the things you can do is look at a nearby galaxy cluster–the nearest one to us is the Virgo Cluster. You can look at galaxies in that cluster, study them in detail, and understand the things that happen in these really dense environments that perhaps cause galaxies to change over time. I look at galaxies that have had really rough encounters, the galaxies that plunged into this gas; the Virgo Cluster is filled with this gas that is a million degrees, it fills the cluster and probably came from earlier galaxies. As galaxies plunge into this gas they feel a wind. It’s similar to when you’re driving down the highway and you put your hand out the window and feel that pressure. These galaxies feel a wind, and that wind can push gas that was in the galaxy out of the galaxy.

“When that happens, it affects the rate at which stars form in the galaxy. One of the things I’m interested in is trying to look at the stars that are left behind when this gas left to try to get some sense of what the history of the galaxy is, to run the clock backwards, and figure out what things have happened in this galaxies life that describe what the cluster environment is like. We’ve taken really beautiful images of these galaxies using ground-based telescopes and space telescopes. We’ve taken spectro, which is taking the light and stretching it out to figure out details about the stars that make up the light.

“So, that’s my area of research.”

Crowl wanted to find a way to continue this while also pursuing  a career in education. While he enjoys speaking with the public and working with students, he wanted to ensure he could continue researching at the same time. “All faculty try to connect our research into the classroom to give students the opportunity to understand what’s really going on, to engage with the real things,” he says. “I’m interested in trying to bring in the things I learn through my research to better explain these phenomena and to try to make it relevant.”

The thing he emphasizes most: switching things up. “Good scientists are people who don’t spend all of their time doing science. Science is a creative pursuit,” Crowl says. “Yes, you need to understand the fundamentals and the techniques, but you also need to understand how to be creative, how to think of projects, how to develop those creative sides.”

He recommends taking as many different classes as you can, regardless of what your declared area of study may be. If you’re a dance student, take astronomy. If you’re a philosophy student, take mathematics. 

The class he encourages his students to take most is Scriptorium with Camille Guthrie. “It is really important for scientists to be able to communicate…especially broadly to the public.”

“I do think I’m a much better scientist because I took literature classes and acting classes in undergrad. I took a lot of different classes that were not just in the science building,” he recalls. “I think that helped me be a better scientist and think broadly about the world, and understand not only how to talk about my own research, but also how to have a big picture idea and how to communicate that well.”

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