PIEDMONT -- Astronomer and confessed eclipse addict Alex Filippenko began his celebrated scientific career in a most inauspicious manner: playing with a magnet in a sandbox.
As a child, the 54-year old Piedmont resident and UC Berkeley professor delighted his mathematician father and librarian mother with tiny, black specks of iron he discovered in sand. By second grade, when a private schoolteacher labeled Filippenko's preoccupation with magnets as "weird," his parents recognized a budding scientist and changed schools. The move launched their son on a trajectory that would eventually take him from sulfuric explosions to Saturn to galactic nuclei and supernovae.
"At the new school, there was a teacher who sent me to the library to make an electromagnet. Then there was Mr. Goodrich, a middle schoolteacher who let me explore chemistry," Filippenko recalled during a recent interview. "In college, Stanton Peale (now a UC Santa Barbara professor emeritus) really got me going in physics and astrophysics."
All along, Filippenko practiced the art of independent discovery in a quest to understand the physical universe. When he was 13, he learned that smashing powdery, dry sulfur resulted in burnt-to-a-crisp hair and eyebrows.
"I was stupid -- and lucky I wore glasses because that saved my eyes."
In high school, he asked for a telescope and had his socks blown off when he found Saturn all on his own. What began as a hobby became an obsession, especially when lab smells and life expectancy rates of organic chemists turned him off.
"The fume hoods they used then weren't nearly as good as they are now. I switched before I had to take organic chemistry," he laughed.
Changing his college major to astronomy, where the physics of the very large govern the very small, Filippenko found he could have it all: everything from molecules to dark matter. Investigating natural structures became his life's work.
Leapfrogging over his research as a member of both teams that discovered the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate (which earned the "Science Breakthrough of 1998" prize from Science magazine and the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics for team leaders), Filippenko became a nine-time "Best Professor" at Cal and a sought-after public speaker.
Filippenko will discuss the expansion of the universe and how it's speeding up with time from 7 to 8 p.m. Tuesday in a Science Cafe program titled, "Dark Energy and the Runaway Universe" at the Lafayette Library and Learning Center, 3492 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette. His ongoing research is aided by advancements in charge couple devices (CCD's), computers and Keck telescopes.
"CCD's used to be enormously expensive. Now, they're in your camera. They allow me to study faint, distant objects. The revolution in silicon chips means the laptop I have is better than the entire computer center at any top university (of) 30 years ago," he said.
And segmented telescopes, with 36 hexagonal, honeycomb segments working in concert, allow giant telescopes to be made economically. Robotic telescopes at the Lick Observatory allow Filippenko's teams to search relentlessly for exploding stars, then power through rapid analysis to compare images.
"For 10 years, we were the world's greatest at finding supernovas," he said.
From students, Filippenko has learned that science can be fascinating, even to people who initially fear it.
The questions science can't answer -- why we exist, what our moral code should be, if there is a creator who put us here for a special purpose -- are ones he prefers to hold separate.
As a father of four, Filippenko worries about future generations. Already, his academic responsibilities don't allow time for replicating the rigorous, four-person seminars that taught him "not to futz, but to explain myself in clear and logical ways.
"I think it's good that they have a new stadium, but when our coaching staff doesn't pay attention to the academic life of our students, that's inexcusable," he said. "And it pains me that two-thirds of the funding used to come from the state. Now it's around 10 percent. They're underinvesting in the university."
Solutions may be elusive, but that won't stop Filippenko from star gazing -- and possibly joining his youngest child, aptly named Orion, to explore the infinite mysteries of the backyard sandbox.
What: "Dark Energy and the Runaway Universe" presented by UC Berkeley astronomy professor Alex Filippenko, of Piedmont
When: Tuesday; doors open at 6:30 p.m., and program is from 7 to 8 p.m.
Where: Lafayette Library and Learning Center, 3491 Mt. Diablo Blvd.