Faces of the Foundation: Alex Filippenko

January 22, 2018
Bennett McIntosh
Livermore, Calif

His students say he looks like Robin Williams and love his lectures so much they’ve voted him “best professor” on campus a record nine times. For Alex Filippenko, the nerdy t-shirts and goofy videos (which his students freely adapt into memes) he brings to his lectures are fundamental to teaching and inspiring his students. “You have to wear your passion on your sleeve,” he says.

Though he was enchanted by the sights he saw through his telescope as a child, Alex was actually more interested in chemistry growing up – he spent much of high school making “small quantities of explosives” with a chemistry set, and his first job in college was prepping experiments for one of the teaching labs. But in his freshman year at the University of California, Santa Barbara, an inspiring class on the wonders of the heavens encouraged him to switch to astrophysics. “I liked chemistry because it was about the very very small phenomena, and astronomy because it was about the very very large,” he says. “I realized that with astrophysics, I could have it all.”(Alex admits the switch was helped along by “a sense of self-preservation” after an after-hours experiment in the teaching lab blew up in his face.)

Alex’s work watching the life-cycles and the trajectories of distant objects has helped reveal where the elements that make us up come from (the violent deaths and collisions of ancient stars) and where we’re going: he was a member of both teams recognized by the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe, which is probably driven by mysterious “dark energy.” The capacity to ask and answer such awe-inspiring questions is why Filippenko calls astronomy “the gateway science,” encouraging a new generation to think about how their scientific contributions could change the world.