Professor Shane Burns’ interview with PBS is one step in an illustrious career

After putting in the man hours and brain power necessary for success, Colorado College physics professor Shane Burns, along with the rest of his small research team, contributed to the realization that the universe, contrary to scientific consensus, is experiencing accelerated expansion.

As part of the PBS program “Hittin’ The Road,” Burns provides commentary on humanity’s place in the universe, the origins of astronomy, and his team’s research in cosmology. This Berkeley astrophysics group, which Burns helped establish, received the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Burns attended the ceremony in Stockholm and received a commendation from the Colorado House of Representatives for his contributions.

One of the defining moments in Burns’ life was when, at 12-years-old, he first discovered a burgeoning curiosity for what lay beyond the stars above him as he laid under the Rocky Mountain’s clear sky.

“As I stood illuminated by the light from the stars, I remember a number of cosmological questions popped into my head. ‘Where did this come from? What are those things?’” said Burns.

After this intellectual awakening, Burns pursued eclectic interests. In the six years leading up to his bachelor’s degree, Burns supported himself through college and studied English, philosophy, and chemistry.

“I stumbled onto a liberal arts education,” said Burns. “I took classes that were interesting to me. It opened me to up this world of the intellect.”

After reading Einstein’s biography, he discovered the allure of physics and graduated from the University of California: San Diego with a degree in the field. In graduate school at UC Berkley, he worked closely with Saul Perlmutter, the future Nobel Prize winner, on supernova explosions as distance indicators.

In the same way it is possible to judge the distance of a car from the strength of its headlights when driving on the road, the light supernovas emit can be used to measure the expansion history of the universe.

“My favorite part of [astronomy] is learning something new, where you have understood some little piece of the world that you hadn’t before,” said Burns.

Burns focused primarily on analyzing infrared imaging from the Hubble Space Telescope to determine the extinction of supernovas.

This work allowed Burns to finally answer some of the initial questions he pondered in Wyoming all those years ago.

Now, Burns believes that his primary calling is being a professor.

Colorado College’s nearby mountains and small classes instantly captured Burns’ admiration as a visiting professor in 1986.

The ability to foster relationships with students through the intensity of the block plan and the freedom to discuss work with colleagues all played a role in Burns’ decision to come back as a full-time professor.

“I get to interact in a way that allows me to really do what a teacher should,” said Burns. “It is an opportunity to address students’ different manners of learning. At the basis of a liberal arts education is the enlightenment ideal of critically thinking about the world, and physics is the ultimate expression of this. The sciences allow you to test your ideas against the real world.”

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