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Stephen Danford

[Interview with Strong College Fellow Prof. Stephen Danford]

By S.B. Almond

Triad Style, 9 October 1996

Growing up in Racine, Wis., Stephen Danford found himself interested in two things: staring at the sky and physics. Astronomy came naturally to him. After receiving him Ph.D. in astronomy from Yale, Danford came to UNCG in 1976 where he has remained since. An expert in stellar astronomy, Danford was co-director of the project that brought the Three College Observatory to Greensboro in 1981. (Its 32-inch telescope ranks as one of the largest in the Southeast.) Danford and his wife have three children, none of whom plan to pursue astronomy.

What’s your favorite planet?
Mars, because it will offer the most interesting history for us. Studying its climate will be helpful in unraveling our own climates, and the possibility of life there is extremely exciting.

So you do believe in extraterrestrial life?
If you mean life of any kind, I would have to say the chances are very high. If you mean intelligent life, though, I’d have to throw up my hands and say I just don’t know.

Do you put any faith in astrology, using stars to predict the future?
The problem with astrology is that it tries to cast itself not as a mystical thing, but as a science. And its not a science. It’s just silly.

Sounds like you’re a Taurus.
The funny thing is I can never remember my sign.

Do you have a favorite space movie?
“2001: A Space Odyssey,” which I always have to defend, because critics say it’s too obscure.

Does a movie like “Independence Day,” which basically portrays aliens as funny looking Russians, bother you?
That was fun as entertainment. But I couldn’t look at it without feeling a little sad that we can’t imagine any kind of life that isn’t such an obvious reflection of ourselves.

What’s the biggest misconception about stars?
One of the most galling has to do with the vast distance between stars. People seem to believe that one day we’ll develop the technology to leap from one galaxy to the next, like in “Star Wars.”

What about astronomers?
People think of astronomers as isolated in some old observatory, peering through a telescope. But astronomy today is a discipline steeped in computer technology. Even observational astronomers spend 99 percent of their time in front of a computer.

What’s the best place to see the stars locally?
The Three College Observatory. It’s dark, secluded, and has a great telescope.

What do you do when you’re not gazing at stars?
I like to canoe, read, play softball. I am also working with the UNCG student chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

Was going to the moon a good investment?
It was a wonderful investment, but it was not done the right way. We went there thinking it would be a one-shot deal, when we should have viewed it as part of a longer term investment of our money and energies into moving out into space.

Do you think we have a future on Mars?
I surely hope we do. I would despair of a human culture that limited itself to the home and never went anywhere. I don’t think Mars will ever solve the earth’s population problem, as some suggest. But humans could work there for brief times and return to earth.

If given the opportunity, would you travel to Mars?
If my kids are through college and if I can talk my wife into it.

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021