Dr. Jennifer Hoffman is Grand Canyon’s next Astronomer in Residence
Hoffman works to give learning opportunities to underrepresented groups
GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — Dr. Jennifer Hoffman, a professor at the University of Denver (DU), and director of DU’s 120-year-old Chamberlin Observatory, is the Grand Canyon Conservancy’s (GCC) first Astronomer in Residence of 2023. Hoffman will provide dark sky educational programing at Grand Canyon National Park March 8 through April 19.
“Dr. Hoffman was selected for her outstanding accomplishments in astronomy and her mission to support all community members in their engagement with science,” Clover Morell, GCC Residency Programs manager said in a press release. “The GCC and the National Park Service are honored to host Dr. Hoffman as she promotes accessible science literacy and creates lasting experiences for our visitors under Grand Canyon’s pristine dark skies.”
Hoffman’s research is understanding how binary stars affect each other through the methods of polarized light observations and 3-D computational simulations, and what that can tell us when one or both of the stars goes supernova.
Astronomers have a fairly complete picture of massive stars at the end of their lives: They run out of fuel in the core and can’t fuse hydrogen to helium. Eventually, the fusion engine turns off and the star will collapse because it can’t support itself followed by a kind of a rebound and that turns into a supernova explosion. That process is well understood for a single star, according to Hoffman, but it usually assumes that it lacks a companion star.
“It turns out that most stars that are large enough to explode are not sitting there by themselves, Hoffman said. "Most of them are binaries so they have a companion that’s close enough to affect what happens to it. Stellar material can go from one to the other, making one lighter and one heavier. Further massive stars have strong stellar winds, they impact each other and create structures around the stars and all of these interactions can change the pathway to the explosion.”
Hoffman met her husband of over 30 years in an astronomy class and while living in the same dorms at UC Berkeley. She calls their relationship the best example of a stable orbit in her life. The couple both ended up as physics majors, but he did English on the side while she did astronomy on the side.
“When we went to grad school, we decided to go to Wisconsin because it had opportunities for both of us,” Hoffman said. “During my program I got to live at the (Pine Bluff Observatory) outside of Madison, Wisconsin and they have a grad student live there to kind of be the caretaker of the property. We were just living out on this rural hilltop in western Wisconsin for four years, that was a formative experience and we also got married at the observatory.”
Hoffman works to increase opportunities for members of underrepresented groups to participate in physics and astronomy. She co-directs DU SciTech, a summer STEM camp for middle-school girls of color with the Denver Astronomical Society and the Society of Physics Students to spread astronomy awareness.
Current numbers suggest that women in physics only comprise about 20 percent of undergraduate and graduate students and 14 percent of faculty. These numbers vary by subfield, but the overall physics average remains small, according to a 2016 study on gender discrimination in physics and astronomy in the American Physical Society.
One way Hoffman has addressed this disparity is hosting a week-long "buffet of STEM projects" at the DU campus. Since 2016, she has hosted a camp that collects insects,
Since 2016, Hoffman has hosted a week-long “buffet of STEM projects," running the gamut from insect collection, telescopes and computer programming at the DU campus.
“In 2019 we thought it would be fun if they contributed to a scientific study,” Hoffman said. “During camp they went out daily and categorized the grass species around streetlights on campus. We were asking, 'Are the species different around a streetlight?' They found there are more invasive species under the streetlights and that’s an interesting result that might make us think differently about how we light our environment and what the consequences are.”
Public astronomy programming is the main focus of the Astronomer in Residence program at Grand Canyon. Last year’s astronomers hosted 25 programs for around 600 people, and an additional 15,000 people were reached through 134 dark sky events at the Grand Canyon, according to the Grand Canyon Conservancy.
One of the things that draws Hoffman into her research is how binary stars and supernova change over human timescales. Supernova appear in the sky, get bright and then they fade away typically over a year, depending on how far away it is. Binary stars typically have orbital timeframes of a couple of weeks and scientists can gather a full picture of the system over multiple orbits.
“It helps you see the sky as something that’s changeable rather than eternal, unchanging and separate,” Hoffman said. I think it both humanizes it a little bit to be able to think about short-term changes.”
Hoffman will explore this by collaborating with guests to create a moon panorama, a shadow path and a sunset map for the Spring Equinox. Visitors will document their daily observations of the sun’s position on a display to illustrate changes in the celestial landscape.
“I’m interested in finding ways to connect what I do with others, I don’t want it to be separate,” Hoffman said. "I don't want it to be: 'Astronomers are special people and they possess special knowledge.' I want it to be something that people can interact with and engage with and feel is connected to their own lives.”
Hoffman plans to host an online event March 25 with the Chamberlin Observatory in Denver in conjunction with Grand Canyon to give each audience a slightly different perspective on the night sky.
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