of Physics Kristine Larsen a "Great Prof of CT"
The Hartford Courant's
Northeast Magazine featured Professor Kristine Larsen as one of the "Great
Professors of Connecticut."
PROFESSORS OF CT
Central Connecticut State University
The Universe In A
By RAND RICHARDS
COOPER, Northeast Magazine
Central Connecticut's Kris Larsen
isn't exactly your typical astrophysicist. Larsen is young and brash; listens to
death metal bands; wears tattoos and an eyebrow ring. And then there's gender.
Larsen is a she.
In the unspoken division of sciences into hard and soft
- men's work and women's work - theoretical physics remains the ultimate male
bastion. Larsen tells stories. The time as a grad student she went to hear a
Nobel prizewinner lecture, and in the Q and A afterward he ignored her, then
apologized by saying he assumed she was someone's girlfriend. Or the conferences
she attended with her thesis adviser, UConn's Ronald Mallett, who is African
American, another group scarcely represented among physicists. "You know that
scene in `The Exorcist' when her head goes completely around?" Larsen recalls.
"That's what happened whenever we two came in! People would just stare! It was
like, `OK, they're lost!'"
In fact, science is how Larsen found herself.
As a little girl in Hamden she was fascinated by dinosaurs - "the ultimate
dinosaur geek," she calls herself. In middle school, paleontology gave way to
chemistry, "until my little brother nearly blinded himself with my chemistry
set, and my mother threw it out." Finally, Larsen discovered the mysteries of
black holes and the stars. "At 16, I had it all planned out. I'd have my Ph.D.
by 27, I'd get a job at a university, and that would be my life." She pauses. "I
was off by six months on the Ph.D." Larsen says she can't imagine doing anything
but teaching science. "Well, maybe being a roadie in a rock band. I can schlep
And there goes another expectation: Whoever thought a
physicist would be so funny? But Larsen is a hoot, both out of class and in.
During her explanation of eruptive variable stars, someone in the domed lecture
room in Copernicus Hall loudly sneezes. "That's it!" Larsen quips, not missing a
beat. She describes a white dwarf, a collapsing star with a density of 1,000
tons per tablespoon, as "more dense than your average `Baywatch' star." And to
illustrate the action of pulsars, she performs "the pulsar dance" - spinning
around, arms angled out to represent magnetic poles, fingers waving to indicate
beams of radiation shooting from the poles. The winner of last year's Excellence
in Teaching Award at CCSU is whirling like a dervish at the front of the
classroom, impersonating a rapidly rotating neutron star.
method to this mirth. The cosmic speculations of Einstein and his heirs are
dauntingly abstract. Light bent by gravity. Spherical space-time curving in on
itself. An eternally expanding universe. Theoretical physics stands for
everything that makes us feel intellectually puny. Most of Larsen's students are
non-majors, and her lively classroom act - "it's vaudeville when I teach," she
says - makes students more comfortable in an intimidating subject; her humor is
a pedagogical strategy.
Larsen is "intuitively sensitive" to how
overwhelmed students can feel, says Marty Connors, who has taken several courses
with her. "She has an amazing knowledge of physics and astronomy, but she also
has the ability to simplify the subject to help you get your arms around it. She
doesn't hit you right up front with all the glorious complexities."
exciting to watch a gifted teacher deftly bring astronomy down to Earth. Larsen
leads not with math, but with metaphor. She never stops comparing things to
other things. The collapse of outer layers into the core of an exploding red
super giant is like a bunch of Keystone cops piling into each other. Quasars are
baby galaxies going through teething pains. Binary stars in asymmetrical mutual
orbit are like Eric Cartman and Kenny riding a seesaw in "South Park." Lecturing
on the collapse of a white dwarf, Larsen invokes a principle from quantum
mechanics, the Pauli exclusion principle, that requires electrons to occupy only
those energy states not already occupied by other electrons. She compares this
to students entering a classroom, each taking an empty seat: "One person, one
chair; one electron, one seat." Now, she says, imagine the room shrinking,
collapsing like a star, the seats getting closer and closer together. "What
would determine the limit to how far we could crunch this room down? It would
stop when the chairs were as close as they could possibly be, right?" Well, same
for the white dwarf, whose collapse is halted when its electrons are in danger
of violating the Pauli exclusion principle. The technical name for this, Larsen
tells the class, is degeneracy pressure. "But you should think, if the electrons
were any closer together, they'd be sitting in each other's laps, and that's not
The profusion of analogies brings home the essential poetry of
science teaching. In her big purple notebook Larsen keeps a Buddhist sage's
advice to teachers, urging them to "abandon dispiritedness" and revel in "the
hardships of explaining." She herself is a master explainer - a translator,
really, shuttling endlessly between the highly mathematical language of
theoretical physics and the everyday language of people like you and me. And her
metaphors stick. A week later in Stellar Astronomy, she reviews the Pauli
exclusion principle. "Oh yeah," says a student in the front row. "The musical
chairs thing. When they can't get packed in any closer."
After class I
ask where she gets her ideas. "I come up with a lot on the fly," she says. "If
something works, I'll use it again. It's very improvisational." Of course, every
analogy breaks down eventually, Larsen notes. "Sometimes students will really
run with something, and I have to say, `Whoa, wait a minute, it isn't really
like that!' You've got to weigh whether the analogy is worth the misconceptions
that might go along with it." I'm struck yet again by how complicated teaching
is - to find a graspable metaphor and then, even as you use it, to think about
its limitations. Great teaching is expertise plus: You have to talk the subject
while thinking the process.
Then again, multitasking is a way of life for
Larsen. In a forty-minute break between Stellar Astronomy and Cosmology, she
rushes back to her office, where she puts on a CD of Dream Theater's "Falling
Into Infinity" and checks her e-mail - she'll get fifty in an hour sometimes,
she tells me - while offering quick advice to a student who stops by with a
physics problem. She fields a phone call from an administrator about another
student who, according to the university's computer, doesn't exist. She briefs
me on her crammed schedule. Tomorrow a group of prospective honors applicants to
welcome at a breakfast. Saturday a Partners in Science workshop she's running
for Hartford school kids. "I should learn to say no," she mutters, tearing
through her pile of snail mail. A letter informs her she has been nominated to
the union council. "Where are the hours supposed to come from?" she moans. "I
barely have time to sleep!"
Larsen is a home-grown Central product; she
graduated in its first honors program class in 1984, and her dedication to her
alma mater and its students seems bottomless. In class, if someone can't find a
handout from the last meeting, she makes a crack - "You got a quarter?" - then
heads out to make a copy. In her jovial informality and her willingness to do
almost anything for her students, Larsen seems like a born teacher, and she
downplays her own accomplishments as a scientist. This is misleading. "Kris was
a brilliant graduate student," says Ronald Mallett of UConn. "Her doctoral
thesis advanced our understanding of the evolution of black holes and their
connection to the structure of the universe." Larsen, Mallett says, faced a
promising career as a researcher in astrophysics, but chose to focus on teaching
instead. "Kris is a very, very gifted science teacher," he says. "She has the
knack for making it exciting."
She makes it exciting because she finds it
exciting. Whether she's advising a children's book author on star drawings;
dissuading people who show up with rocks they're convinced are meteorites
("meteorwrongs," Larsen jokes); lecturing on the astronomy of Middle-Earth at a
Tolkien convention in Germany ("I'm a major Tolkien geek," she confesses); or
traveling to an annual stargazers party in Vermont ("200 people, 500 telescopes,
and no indoor plumbing!"), Larsen clearly loves what she does. She still thrills
to backyard astronomy - the excitement of "eyeball on glass," as she calls it,
locating a faint galaxy she has never seen before, 60 million light-years away.
"Kris always shows her sense of fun and curiosity," Marty Connors says. "She's
an exceptionally engaging teacher."
Sitting through Larsen's classes -
especially her advanced Cosmology class - means battling through numerous topics
bewildering to me, with my lone, long-ago year of college math and physics. But
beyond the bafflements of tensor calculus lies an ever-ready reach for the big
picture. One day, toward the end of a Science and Society class in which Larsen
has lectured on women astronomers at early 20th-century Harvard, a kid in a back
row asks - out of the blue, as it were - "Do we have any idea, like, what shape
our universe is?"
Larsen answers that the universe could have one of
three shapes. She draws them on the board: flat; spherical or hyperbolic - a
universe "like a Pringle's potato chip," she says. Which of these three is most
likely depends on calculations of the amount of matter in the universe. And
that, Larsen says, is very hard to do. Any other questions?
Hands fly up;
somehow she has struck a speculative vein. Can we go faster than the speed of
light? How old is the universe? What will happen when our sun dies? A student
asks how many galaxies there are in the universe, and Larsen answers with a
dead-on Carl Sagan impersonation: "Billions and billions." Later she'll joke
about it, how every class at some point in the semester comes out with what she
calls "the big, Jungian questions." But it's clear she's enjoying it. After all,
the origins of the universe and the mystery of our ultimate fate - these are the
questions that got Larsen hooked in the first place. And we want that from the
Great Professor. Do the details, but do the big Jungian stuff, too.
last day at Central, another exchange between Larsen and a student sums up
something else I've seen from all three professors whose classes I've visited.
In Stellar Astronomy, Larsen has just finished doing her funky little pulsar
dance when a student asks, What makes a pulsar spin so fast,
Larsen pauses, only partly to catch her breath. "Ten years ago I
would have said, conservation of angular momentum." She explains the concept by
referring to a spinning skater who draws her arms in to speed up - like a star
whose mass is collapsing, making it spin faster. "But by now we've observed too
many that don't behave this way. So now we have to say, `I dunno.'" She shrugs.
"It's one of those areas of knowledge that is evolving."
focuses for me just how much is required of those few professors who make our
list of all-time greats. Not only the commitment to excellence in every
interaction. Not only the well-built lecture and the brilliantly conducted
seminar. Not only the vision to see the universe in a building's design, or a
soldier's memoir, or a Pringle potato chip, and not only the depth of knowledge
that makes him or her a walking, breathing archive in their field. There's
something more paradoxical that the Great Professor does for us - namely, to
convey the thrill of what he or she doesn't know. It's one of those areas of
knowledge that is evolving. The Great Professor insists that our facts, our
ideas, our conclusions, even our systems of knowledge themselves are
provisional. He or she reminds us how thrilling it is to venture beyond what we
know; and in so doing, equips us for a lifetime of taking on new
It's a truism, I suppose, but what makes education so
inescapably hopeful is precisely this zest for the unknown. Great professors
convert not-knowing from an embarrassment to an excitement, and show us how to
turn our quandaries into opportunities. That is why we keep drawing on them all
our lives. At the end of the Big Jungian Questions class, a student asks Larsen
whether it might be possible to travel faster than the speed of light. "Well,
we'd have to change our fundamental understanding of the universe for that to be
possible," Larsen says. A pause, and she grins. "Of course, that might well
Richards Cooper is the author of "The Last to Go" (Harcourt Brace) and "Big As
Life" (The Dial Press). His fiction has appeared in Harper's, The Atlantic,
Esquire and on National Public Radio's "Selected Shorts." He is a frequent
reviewer for The New York Times Book Review and contributing editor at Bon
Appétit Magazine. Cooper lives in Hartford.
Reprinted by Permission The Hartford
photo by MICHAEL MCANDREWS.