This edition of Who Makes Millersville Special features Dr. Sean P. Hendrick, assistant professor of physics. Hendrick has been with the University since fall 2005.
Q: Why did you come to Millersville?
A: I was raised in the Philadelphia suburbs but went to school in the south, first at the University of Virginia and then at North Carolina State University. One of my best friends from high school attended Millersville, and I would often road trip up to Millersville to visit during my college years. After finishing my graduate work, I wanted to be back in the area to be close to my family. After a one-year sabbatical replacement job at Drew University in New Jersey, the position at Millersville opened up, and I was excited to apply.
Q: Tell us why you decided on a career in physics and astronomy?
A: At a young age, my parents sparked my interest in astronomy. There was an alignment of planets in the late 70s, where several planets were visible in the sky at once. My parents got a telescope and took me and my brother out to see them early one morning. I was amazed by what I saw then and have been hooked ever since. It wasn’t until later in life I realized they actually pay people to look at the sky, and I wanted to be one of those people.
Q: Can you explain for us what an astrophysicist studies?
A: Basically, we study the nature of the universe. Observational astronomy is part of it, but so is the theoretical physics needed to explain what we see. There are many fields that examine the formation and evolution of planets, stars and galaxies. Then there is cosmology, which looks at the origins of the universe with the Big Bang Theory and the roles of Dark Matter and Dark Energy.
My area of expertise is supernova explosions and the remnants they leave behind. This is really the first step in evolution, creating and distributing the elements of the periodic table. Every atom in your body (besides any hydrogen) was created in a dying star. That explosion spread out, delivering that material to surrounding clouds of hydrogen and triggering the next round of star and planet formation.
Q: Do you have telescopes?
A: I still have the one my parents bought many years ago, but we also have several telescopes in the physics department. I try to take some of the physics majors out to do some observing several times each semester. We will also come to any group that invites us to set up the telescopes for some observations. I also keep one in my car at all times because you never know when conditions will be great for viewing.
Q: What has been your best experience (s) over your years here?
A: The best feeling as a teacher is that “eureka” moment. When you are trying to explain a concept to a student and you finally see their eyes light up, and you know that they understand. That breakthrough from confusion to comprehension is the most satisfying part of the job.
Q: What classes do you teach?
A: My main responsibility is the General Astronomy class (PHYS 117), a G2 block class, which serves over 300 students each year with two fall sections and one in the spring. It is designed for non-science majors, so I try to have fun with it as much as possible. I also handle some upper-level physics classes like Electromagnetism (PHYS 321 & 322) and Introduction to Astrophysics (PHYS 317). I teach our department’s only perspective course, Physics & the Evolution of Western Civilization (PHYS 302) which combines physics, history and philosophy. My other large class is Physics 2—with Algebra (PHYS 132), a course that mainly serves our biology program to give those students the basis in physics upon which chemistry and biology are built.
Q: Since physics is such a difficult subject for many, do you think students/other people are intimidated by you?
A: By me personally—I hope not, but the material can be intimidating. The main issue is the math phobia that is so prevalent with today’s students. I jokingly tell my students each year that it is O.K. to hate math, but it is not O.K. to fear math. The first rule in Pythagoras’ school was “at its deepest level, reality is mathematical in nature” and that is so very true. Mathematics is the language of the universe, and we science and math professors are your translators. If you can learn it, you will see the beauty in the mathematics that we all appreciate.
Q: What do you do in your free time? Any hobbies? Sports?
A: Reading and video games are my main hobbies. I am also an avid sports fan, especially NFL football and college hoops. I play fantasy football during the season, and I filled out my brackets for March Madness. Despite my Philly roots, I am a Cowboys fan from a family full of Eagles fans. My brother and I traveled to Dallas for this year’s Eagles-Cowboys game the last week of the season, bad result for me, but he loved it, and it was a nice trip.
Q: What was the last book you read?
A: I am constantly reading, mainly science fiction and fantasy novels. My dad was always reading, and one day I asked him which was his favorite. He handed me “The Foundation Trilogy” by Isaac Asimov, and I began my love of reading. Recently, I finished a re-read: the “Malazan Book of the Fallen,” by Steven Erickson, a 10-volume epic fantasy series, which I can highly recommend to fans of the genre. For many years now, Dr. Tim Miller from the English Department has invited me to be a part of his Science Fiction class (ENGL 292), where I come in to discuss the science of science fiction and am available to help his students with any technical questions they have when writing their own stories.
Q: What is your favorite food?
A: A nice steak and a baked potato is the perfect meal.
Q: What’s your favorite place to vacation?
A: My family has a beach house on Long Beach Island (LBI), and I have spent all my summers there. For 10 years I worked as a lifeguard on the beach, continuing the family tradition of my uncles and cousins who have guarded. That was the best job ever, and I made some really good friends over the years. The Hendrick beach house really keeps my father’s side of the family close, since we all descend upon it in the summer. We’re a large extended family, often with 20+ people staying there over the summer holidays. I’ve been to many beaches on both coasts, but LBI means home and family to me, so I go there as often as possible,
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: San Dimas High School football rules!