Barry McNamara  |   Published January 30, 2019

An ‘Academic Unicorn’

Physics professor Michael Solontoi hopes to inspire students to develop lifelong thirst for learning. 

MONMOUTH, Ill. – At Michael Solontoi’s first faculty post, he was assigned to teach a 400-level optics course.

Problem was, Solontoi had never studied optics. So he taught himself.

MICHAEL SOLONTOI: ?If I can inspire my students in a way that's at least relative to my education... MICHAEL SOLONTOI: “If I can inspire my students in a way that's at least relative to my education experience, I would call that a very successful career.”“You hear all the clichés, like being a ‘lifelong learner,’ but really, that’s exactly what it is,” said Solontoi, who joined Monmouth’s physics faculty last fall after serving as a visiting lecturer at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. “My biggest realization came in grad school. I realized I can now pick up a book and learn from it. I didn’t have to rely on a professor giving me an assignment and telling me what to do. It blew my mind.”

And expanded it, exponentially.

That thirst for knowledge, that passion for a subject – that desire to be a lifelong learner – is what Solontoi hopes translates from his experience to the Monmouth students he teaches.

“I’m not saying learn enough to be an expert – not write the new paradigm for the field, or anything like that – but to know enough to have a discussion with experts, that’s a pretty neat thing,” he said. “If I can inspire my students in a way that’s at least relative to my education experience, I would call that a very successful career.”

An ‘academic unicorn’

Part of that experience was gained at Reed College in Portland, Ore., where Solontoi enrolled as a physics major. He said there was never a doubt.

“I’m one of those weird academic unicorns,” he said. “I always knew what I wanted to do from a very early age. Well, first I thought I wanted to run a museum, because I thought that was the person who did all the research. But as soon as I really got into learning a lot of science, I was drawn to physics. I just knew.”

What was less clear was which path Solontoi would take – research or teaching. He gained experience in both while earning his master’s degree and Ph.D. in astronomy at the University of Washington.

“I got experience teaching undergraduates in grad school, and I also did professional, leading-edge research,” he said. “I thought, ‘I like both, I’m good at both, but I’m better at teaching.’”

Astronomy: A weird science

Teaching astronomy comes with unique challenges, Solontoi said, as frequent discoveries are constantly changing the playing field.

“Astronomy is not rehashing the same stuff. I get to be wrong, but in the right ways,” he said.

For example, people who haven’t studied astronomy lately might say that Earth is one of nine planets in the solar system. However, the current thinking for that number is now eight, Solontoi explained. The definition of what makes a celestial body a planet is open for debate, but one guideline is if the body in question dominates its orbit.

“If you look at Earth, it dominates its orbit – it dominates the moon,” said Solontoi. “Ceres (which is between Mars and Jupiter), which in the 1800s was considered a planet, does not dominate its orbit. There’s lots of other asteroids that don’t care that Ceres is there. It’s the same with Pluto and its orbit.”

Like Ceres, Solontoi said Pluto is best classified as a “dwarf planet,” one of several at the outer reaches of the solar system.

Another example is the asteroid Vesta. Much like the planet Neptune, Vesta was discovered because science indicated it should be there.

“We were kind of right about Vesta,” Solontoi said. “Yep, that’s exactly where we expected it would be, but for it to have what appears to be grooves made by fingers (discovered by the space probe Dawn in 2011), I didn’t expect that. Zero people predicted that.”

Solontoi said astronomy needs to be a predictive science in many cases, because it’s a “weird science.”

“As far as lab experiments go, I can’t build the sun in my basement, and if I could, you probably wouldn’t want me to,” he said. “We don’t get to do our own experiments in astronomy. We have to hope that whatever the universe is doing, we can see somewhere the example we want. It’s a limited science. The only data you can get is what you can swipe from what the universe is doing.”

Mission to Mars

Of course, scientists can push the issue, sending out spacecraft on various missions to collect photos and even samples, but the vastness of space provides obvious challenges.

“Space is hard,” said Solontoi.

Solontoi believes that “at some point, someone is going to put a human being on Mars. I hope that person can come back. We could get someone there very quickly right now, but they’re not coming home.”

He believes a manned Mars mission could happen in the next 20 to 40 years and “by the end of the century, easily.”

“Someone with deep pockets could bankroll it, and China is a possibility, too, because of the way its government functions,” said Solontoi. “It’s a 20-year project, and one Chinese administration could see it all the way through, unlike the way our government is set up in the United States, with a new Congress every two years and a new administration every four years.”

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