Minnesota State University astronomer ends a stellar career

May 14, 2018
Seen in a May 1, 2018 photo, astronomy professor Steve Kipp, who helped build the Andreas Observatory and the Standeford Observatory at Minnesota State University, Mankato, is retiring after 37 years with the university. (Pat Christman/The Free Press via AP)
Seen in a May 1, 2018 photo, astronomy professor Steve Kipp, who helped build the Andreas Observatory and the Standeford Observatory at Minnesota State University, Mankato, is retiring after 37 years with the university. (Pat Christman/The Free Press via AP)

MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — It was about 60 years ago that little Steven Kipp, 10 or 11 years old, directed his new Jason telescope at the stars above Fairfax County, Virginia.

He looked in the eyepiece and, at first, was anything but overwhelmed. Seen through the small telescope his mother purchased for him, the stars were still just points of light. Not everything in the night sky, however, is a distant star.

“Then you point it at one that’s a planet and that’s a very exciting thing to happen to you,” Kipp said May 3 while taking a break from packing up 37 years’ worth of files in his Minnesota State University office.

The spark of interest Kipp felt as a child is one he’s seen countless times at the observatory he helped build on the south side of the MSU campus. Sometimes it was the “Astronomy 101” students — taking the class as a general science requirement because they hoped it would be more interesting than basic chemistry or biology courses.

“Very often the 101 class people aren’t terribly excited about the things that we’re excited about,” said Kipp, speaking of astronomers.

A lot of the students expect to learn little more than the names of constellations and stars and a bit about the origin of celestial bodies. So they weren’t inherently motivated to trudge out to the remote observatory to look through a telescope.

“But they’ll do anything for extra credit points,” he said.

And when the big telescopes at the Standeford and Andreas observatories are pointed at something spectacular like Saturn, “they’re absolutely amazed, and they’re glad they came,” he said.

Since Kipp’s arrival at MSU in the fall of 1981, he figures he’s introduced between 10,000 and 14,000 students to astronomy. While not every one of them is filled with wonderment by what they learn, the course — which includes a lot more physics than most students anticipate — tends to be memorable enough.

“I meet them everywhere,” he said of encounters with former students. “So far they’ve all been very nice. I guess the ones who were dissatisfied don’t introduce themselves.”

Along with the students, thousands of other southern Minnesotans know Kipp from the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s “Public Evenings” at the observatories.

“He’s done a huge amount of engagement with the observatory,” said John Wallin, a 1984 MSU graduate who was the first astronomy major under Kipp. “They get hundreds and hundreds of people a year at the observatory.”

The Mankato Free Press reports that Kipp is retiring from MSU effective this month, but he’ll still be coming to the Public Evenings, just like his longtime colleague Jim Pierce does nearly a decade after his retirement.

“The little kids are the best,” Kipp said. “They’re the most enthusiastic, and they’re smart. They’re very smart.”

The same was likely true of little Steven Kipp back in Virginia in the 1950s, who saw his interest in space ignited not just by that first telescope but by the launch of Sputnik and the drama of the space race and the Apollo missions.

He ended up at the University of Virginia, double-majoring in physics and astronomy, and then Wesleyan University in Connecticut and the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in astronomy.

After Pittsburgh, there was a research opportunity on a 12,000-foot South American mountaintop at the Venezuelan national observatory. He was there when a physics and astronomy job opened in the Math Department at Mankato State University. He applied and he got the job.

Kipp and Pierce worked to build astronomy’s standing at the university, scheduling introductory classes at times of the day that would appeal to late-sleeping students. The strategy attracted big classes, which calculated out to a lot of credit hours, which led to the hiring of another astronomy professor — Paul Eskridge.

“We worked very hard and Jim was a genius at scheduling,” Kipp said.

For the tiny number of astronomy majors, Kipp and Pierce and some of the physics professors in the department were incredibly attentive as teachers and mentors, said Wallin, who traveled to Mankato for Kipp’s retirement party last week.

“They just played a huge, amazing role in my life,” said Wallin, a Hibbing native who is the director of computational sciences in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Middle Tennessee State University. “I wouldn’t be in my current job without those guys. It just wouldn’t have happened.”

State budget cuts during the Great Recession, though, eliminated the astronomy major and the third faculty position, prompting Pierce to take early retirement to protect the jobs of his colleagues.

“Phooey on them,” Wallin said of university administrators. “You can quote me on that.”

Kipp said he sharply criticized his university then and a few other times during his tenure at MSU, as most employees at most organizations do at least occasionally. But as he prepared to walk out of his office for the final time, he was pleased with his decision to come to Mankato and to retire here.

“It was a good career and MSU is a good employer,” he said. “And there’s a lot of good students here. ... We have as good students here as the U does, but we just don’t have as many of them.”

Kipp and his wife, Elizabeth, have two adult children in the Twin Cities and intend to stick around Mankato.

“My kids were born here and I am proud to be Minnesotan. It’s a fine state.”

While star-gazing can be a bit chilly or a bit mosquito-plagued in his adopted state, Kipp will still be looking up with interest just like he did as a child. He’ll be closely watching news of discoveries about the impossibly large universe and the elusive particles that it’s composed of, and he’s particularly anticipating the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope two years from now.

He expects at least a few of his former students, long after leaving MSU, still look skyward on a clear night and consider some of the mysteries — solved and unsolved — from their astronomy class back in college.

“I hope they’re thinking,” Kipp said. “I don’t know if they’re thinking ‘I almost got a B and he didn’t give it to me.’”

But he knows some of his students felt genuine amazement when considering where they fit in the universe — living in the middle of one continent on one of several planets orbiting a star that’s one of maybe 100 billion in a galaxy that’s part of a cluster of galaxies in a universe containing billions of them.

And then there’s a fact that he tosses out to his introduction to astronomy students: that the basic building blocks that make up their body are typically billions of years old.

“The atoms that make up you and me — everything but hydrogen and helium, and there’s not much hydrogen and helium in us — all were cooked up inside of stars,” Kipp said. “If you start with that and then you understand the sequence of the events that allow me to say that, that’s the story of astronomy.”


Information from: The Free Press, http://www.mankatofreepress.com