Professor Aims to Dispel Astrophysics Myths

Professor Aims to Dispel Astrophysics Myths

Deirdre Shoemaker has become accustomed to people not believing in black holes — even one of her stepson’s teachers.

Deirdre Shoemaker has become accustomed to people not believing in black holes — even one of her stepson’s teachers.     

“When he was in elementary school, my stepson came home with an English writing assignment on myths,” said the astrophysicist who is an associate professor in the School of Physics and works within the Center for Relativistic Astrophysics. “His topic choices included Big Foot, the Loch Ness monster and black holes.”

Another common misconception that Shoemaker has encountered is that black holes are giant, cosmic vacuum cleaners that will suck everything in.

“Fortunately, they’re not,” she said. “If we replaced our sun with a black hole of the same mass, Earth wouldn’t be sucked into it. However, the lack of sunlight would be a problem.”

Shoemaker has worked in her field for about 15 years, since she was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. As an astrophysicist, she considers herself to be a “detective of the universe.”

“We are using clues and evidence to determine what the universe is and how and why it looks like it does to us today,” she added.

Recently, The Whistle sat down with Shoemaker to learn more about her and her time at Tech. Here’s what we learned:

How did you get to Tech?
I was an assistant professor at The Pennsylvania State University for four years before being asked to apply to Georgia Tech. I was hired as part of an effort to initiate a research and teaching group dedicated to astrophysics, which evolved into the Center for Relativistic Astrophysics.

Tell us about your research.     
I use computational techniques to solve the equations that govern how two black holes interact with each other. The byproduct of that interaction is called “gravitational radiation.” Gravitational radiation is a kind of radiation predicted by Einstein’s theory of gravity, but it has not been directly detected (we are used to electromagnetic waves like light and microwaves).   

What is your greatest challenge associated with teaching and how do you deal with it?
When I teach large introductory classes, the challenge is to maintain a persona that is respected and approachable. My personality, which is quite friendly, is a plus and a minus for this. I think it helps me be an approachable instructor and encourages students to ask questions in class, but I also have to maintain a balance in and out of the classroom. I think the balance comes from demanding that the students respect each other and me. Little things help accomplish this such as not allowing talking in the room when one person is speaking.

What are three things that are key to making learning more engaging for students?
Humor, patience and research. I think a sense of humor is essential in teaching, second only to having the patience to let students ask questions in their own time and words. These two things help create a classroom atmosphere where a student can feel comfortable. I also try to bring up relevant, current research as often as possible so students can get a feeling for why we find physics so interesting and why it is important to society.

What piece of technology could you not live without as an instructor?
The Internet, because it allows me to research how others teach material similar to my own.

What are three things everyone should do while working at Tech?
Run the annual Pi Mile 5K, slide down that crazy water slide at the Campus Recreation Center and attend a commencement ceremony.

Where is the best place to grab lunch (on or off campus), and what do you order?
I love to order soup at La Petite Café.

Tell me something unusual about yourself.
My family and I have two Great Danes — they pretty much run the household, but they are gentle dictators.

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