City Life

Madison's own star gazer

Eric Wilcots shares his passion with students

Eric Wilcots wanted to be an astronomer since he was a kid growing up in Philadelphia and watched the Voyager space probe images of Jupiter on television. 

He asked his parents for a telescope for Christmas and they delivered, bringing one home from J.C. Penney. Approximate cost, $50. 

“Good enough to see the rings of Saturn and a couple of rings of Jupiter,” Wilcots recalls. 

When he was old enough, he got a summer job at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia. He was hooked. 

Wilcots enrolled at Princeton University knowing he wanted to major in astrophysical sciences, but his romance with the stars didn’t keep him from asking a practical question of his freshman adviser.

“How much money do astronomers make?”

The adviser replied, “Enough to go to the opera.”

“It was a rude question,” Wilcots says today, laughing. But he took her answer to mean: You’ll be able to do what you want to do.

Wilcots, a professor in the department of astronomy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who has been on campus for more than two decades, wants to do both research—he studies the evolution of galaxies—and share his lifelong passion for astronomy with students and the public.

In the latter role, since 1996 Wilcots has spearheaded his department’s Universe in the Park program, which on summer weekend nights brings faculty and graduate students to state parks across Wisconsin, providing a talk and slideshow and a chance for park visitors to peruse the night sky through a telescope.

This year Wilcots is co-chairman of the steering committee of the Wisconsin Science Festival, which runs Nov. 2–5 at venues across the state and is presented by a coalition of Wisconsin’s science and arts communities.

It’s hard to imagine anyone better qualified to promote a statewide celebration of science. Along with scientific and academic bona fides—he’s an associate dean in the college of letters and science—Wilcots both represents and encourages diversity as an active member of the National Society of Black Physicists. In 2015, he received the Chancellor’s Inclusive Excellence Award.

More than anything, he’s engaging. Wilcots’ storytelling approach lures students from all majors into his astronomy classroom. No question is too fanciful.

When I met him for a cup of coffee this past summer, the New York Times Magazine had published—just the day before—a cover story on the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.

I asked Wilcots the question astronomers must weary of hearing at parties.

“Is there other life out there?”

“Absolutely yes,” Wilcots said.

Then he smiled and explained that for the vast majority of Earth’s existence, life existed as bacteria.

“I’m willing to wager there’s bacteria out there,” Wilcots said.

He continued, “Intelligent life? Probably.” The sheer vastness of the universe makes it probable.

Wilcots’ appreciation for that vastness was heightened during graduate school at the University of Washington, when he went to Chile for his thesis and observed the Magellanic Clouds—galaxies orbiting the Milky Way that are visible only from the southern hemisphere.

Wilcots then did postdoctorate work at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in New Mexico, home to the Very Large Array, or VLA, of radio telescopes.

Two points of interest from Wilcots’ time in New Mexico: First, he went on a Jansky fellowship, named for Karl Jansky, a UW–Madison graduate and the “father of radio astronomy,” who discovered the center of the Milky Way was emitting radio waves.

Second, Wilcots just missed seeing the filming of the movie “Contact”—starring Jodie Foster, based on the Carl Sagan novel—shot at VLA the year after Wilcots left.

By then, in 1995, he was in Madison, the city where he and his wife, pediatrician Margaret Wilcots, raised two soccer-playing daughters (coached by their father), who are now grown and themselves pursuing scientific careers.

His two decades-plus in the astronomy department includes time as chairman. Starting in 2000, Wilcots was on a UW–Madison team that was part of the consortium that built a large and powerful telescope on the edge of the Kalahari Desert called the Southern African Large Telescope, or SALT. His work with SALT brought him repeated invitations to speak at Scifest 
Africa, an annual event in Grahamstown, home of Rhodes University. 

Wilcots’ efforts to assist the postapartheid government with its science agenda are in step with his diversity work back home. When his career began, Wilcots typically might have seen one other African American at an astronomy conference. That’s improving, and on campus he helped recruit a diverse pool of students for a 10-week summer program.

The universe beckons. To anyone interested in studying it, Wilcots says: “You will discover things you did not anticipate.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his weekly blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on madisonmagazine.com.


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