Professor Barker on paragliding and supernovas

Having had conversations with Carl Sagan, studied with a future Nobel prize winner in college, and spent time researching at NASA, Professor Tim Barker’s life and interests are just as exciting as the astronomy he studies.

Barker started teaching at Wheaton in 1974 when the college had only one small telescope. Things have changed a lot since then, due in no small way to Professor Barker. We now have 7 telescopes and a computer-controlled remote telescope in Australia. “We have this incredible new facility. I’m just thrilled about it. It’s beyond my wildest dreams,” Barker said. He describes the Wheaton observatory as one the of the best college observatories in the world. “I don’t know of another one like it.”

Barker is also excited about the kinds of things that he and students can do with the equipment. “We’re doing two kinds of things here,” he explained. The first is looking at the moon for changes that could indicate current volcanism. “The other thing we’re working on is studying asteroids. We used data from our telescope in Australia and collaborated with scientists around the world to measure the rotation period of an asteroid.”

Professor Barker’s passion for astronomy started when he was young, he said, with “two things I saw through the telescope as a small child, about 9 years old. The first was the moon. I was just awestruck by that. It’s just beautiful to look at. You can see the history of the solar system on its surface.” The other was the Ring Nebula, or the gas surrounding a dying star, “a more gentle death than a supernova,” the professor explained. Ring Nebulas became his thesis topic and he has published three works on the subject.

According to Barker, the most interesting thing he has experienced in his career was in 1994. “ At Wheaton we witnessed a supernova (when a star blows up). We were the first college to do that. It actually got worldwide publicity. It just took off. The discovery itself wasn’t that important. Just the fact that we were able to do it with such limited equipment was impressive,” he stated. The important thing about recording and observing supernovas is that they provide a snapshot for scientists to study how the universe as a whole is constantly expanding and, as we now know, speeding up in this expansion. However, for Professor Barker one of the best parts of the supernova experience was working with the students.

He also has many surprising hobbies and goals, like build a complicated model of a Viking ship. Professor Barker also enjoys paragliding and wants to to try power-paragliding instead of regular slope soaring. He said that he doesn’t get scared, that “I always feel very supported,” and even though the height is intimidating, “I just happily run off the cliff.” He also likes to fly remote controlled gliders and helicopters.

After 39 years at Wheaton, Professor Barker has decided to retire from full time teaching after this spring, but he will still teach one course per semester and do some volunteer teaching. “Overall I just feel very fortunate for my career at Wheaton, very fortunate,” he remarked. And Wheaton has been very fortunate to have him; Barker is dedicated to his students, passionate about his field and an all-around intriguing person.