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'Astro-Prof' Given Rare Honor

Andrew Fraknoi has been voted an honorary member of The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, a distinction reserved for only 15 living people at the same time.


Science fiction led Andrew Fraknoi to take up astronomy.

And ever since then, the Astronomy instructor has spent his life teaching others that "it's not something weird and only for nerds."

And when received an email that he had been elected an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC), he thought, "Gee, that's sweet."

Then he looked at the RASC website's staggering list of astronomy luminaries. He would be in the company of British theoretical physicist Prof. Stephen Hawking. And there was Owen Gingerich, his former professor at Harvard and who has examined all 16th century copies of Copernicus' great book De revolutionibus (there were 580). 

"That's when then my whole attention jumped to a different state," he said. He read carefully. The Society's appointments are for life, and there can be only 15 honorary members living at the same time.

Fraknoi emailed back right away to accept the honor.

Fraknoi, chairman of the astronomy department, teaches astronomy and physics for poets to more than 900 students each year at Foothill College. The college, in making the announcement Nov. 21, said he appears to be the first community college educator selected for this honor in the 143-year history of the RASC, Canada's leading astronomy organization of more than 4,200 professional scientists, enthusiastic amateurs and educators.

His distinction comes through his educational work on the national scale. RASC National President Mary Lou Whitehorne, who nominated Fraknoi to be an honorary member of the society, called his work "the global gold standard in astronomy education and outreach."

He founded Project ASTRO, a national program in which volunteer astronomers adopt a 4th-9th grade classroom and work with the teachers to bring a hands-on astronomy experience to the students. Family ASTRO, a related project, offers  games and activities that families can engage in to increase their understanding of astronomy. He is also the co-author of a leading college textbook in astronomy, and has published a children's book for Disney called Disney's Wonderful World of Space.

Educated at Harvard and University of California-Berkeley, Fraknoi edited a large resource guide for teaching astronomy, called The Universe at Your Fingertips, which has recently been updated and issued as a DVD-ROM by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Whitehorne said in a statement that she has used "and marvelled at," his work for two decades. Fraknoi was co-founder of the online journal Astronomy Education Review, which is now published by the American Astronomical Society.

To be sure, he's no stranger to awards and honors.

To start, he has an asteroid named after him. The International Astronomical Union has named Asteroid 4859 "Asteroid Fraknoi" to honor his contributions to the public understanding of astronomy.

But Fraknoi said he has devoted the largest portion of his professional life to helping students understand the universe better "and helping other educators (from primary school to college level) convey the excitement and power of science more effectively."

That includes making astronomy funny.

If you've heard of Fraknoi but never took a class, you might have heard him on the radio, from the Mark & Brian Show, the drive-time syndicated program out Los Angeles on WKLOS-FM.

"They call me the professor and we talk about astronomy news and we joke around," Fraknoi said.  

Is astronomy funny?

"I can't let an hour of my class without telling jokes," he answered. "Instead of talking about gravity in a dry way, I talk about throwing little brother off a tall building."

Closer to home, KGO-Radio's talk show host Gil Gross invites him on the air as a guest, and he has appeared on the weekly science talk show, Science Friday and NPR's All Things Considered.

Fraknoi teaches a class, "Everything You Wanted to Know About Einstein But Were Afraid to Ask." He asks students to read fictional stories for class, he plays music inspired by astronomy, and show cartoons inspired by astronomy.

Asked about his favorite science fiction book, he quickly responds with Timescape by Gregory Benford, a physics professor at UC-Berkeley. Writes the most wonderful books, scintillating science.

One of Fraknoi's interests is the scientific search for intelligent life in the universe, and he currently serves as the vice chairman of the board of trustees of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute.

"One of my favorite objects in the sky is a star that blew itself out and what we see the mess let behind," he said. "It's a crab nebula."

He has recently started a Facebook page that is called The Astro-Prof about astronomical developments. A resident of San Francisco, he is also a Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences. A full biography and a sampling of his writings is available on the college's website.

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