Fall 2006

David Alexander

David Alexander shares a few thoughts on the fabric of our universe, his take on humor, Abraham Lincoln, Pluto and his own new digs in Idaho.

One of the great pleasures of my work at WSU was the opportunity to do many different things. I have always taken great satisfaction in teaching students. It is extremely rewarding when a former student returns or sends a comment that you have made a real difference in their lives. Research has always been extremely stimulating to me, and I have had the opportunity to see my work used and cited by many scientists around the world.

I also felt an obligation to serve the university in many capacities — as Faculty Senate President, as a department chair and on many committees and task forces — that have helped the university to operate more effectively. Finally, my work at the university has given me many opportunities to also work in the community, especially through the Lake Afton Public Observatory and the Fairmount Center for Science and Mathematics Education.

David Alexander

I’m now the project manager for the Enterprise Resource Planning project at Idaho State University. We have had great success with our ERP project at WSU, and I am excited to have an opportunity to share my experience in guiding another institution through the process of implementing new administrative systems.

One aspect of the opportunity presented in Idaho is the chance to live in the mountains. I’ve always loved spending time in mountains — climbing, hiking, snowshoeing and skiing. Now I can literally do those things right outside my front door!

I have argued for years that Pluto should not be considered a planet — it is just too small and too different from the other planets to be considered in the same class. Astronomers were finally forced to confront this issue when another body, slightly larger than Pluto, was discovered last year.

I thoroughly enjoy the diversity of perspective and opinion often found in universities. While that can make it difficult to reach consensus and move forward, that also makes the environment stimulating and the final decisions far stronger. The openness with which faculty are encouraged to explore and express ideas is the greatest strength of the university system in America. Often times, the radical ideas of one generation lead to the greatest advances of the next.

I’ve always been fascinated by the neutrino — those ghostly particles that outnumber everything else by a thousand to one, but hardly ever interact with the rest of the particles of the universe. They're incredibly hard to see — that was worth a Nobel prize in physics — but play an important role in understanding the nature and history of the universe.

The most frustrating aspect of the debates over evolution and modern science is that so many people have stopped thinking! Science is the process of taking observations and making sense of the patterns and events that we observe. Unfortunately, the debates over science often ignore the observations. Religions, on the other hand, are thought processes based on faith, not observations. The two disciplines are really focused on entirely different realms. When discussing science, we should remain focused on the observations and what they tell us about the universe. When we discuss religion, we should look inward to our own faith. The conflicts would be greatly reduced if we would keep each in its own realm.

According to Einstein’s theories, now well established by observations, gravity is not so much a force of nature as it is the way in which objects distort space. The complications arise when we try to define a quantum, particle-based, theory of gravity.

The most amazing idea to me of the last century is that 99 percent of the mass-energy of the universe does not exist! I know that sounds like a contradiction, but observations of the properties of the overall universe now show unambiguously that most of the universe’s energy comes from the energy of the vacuum of space — the energy of nothing! Unfortunately, I'd need a whole semester to explain what that really means.

For me, humor has mostly to do with one’s perspective on the life and times around them. Mark Twain had a way of looking at things that could point out the absurdity of our thoughts and ideas. For better or worse, many of his insights are as relevant, and as funny, today as they were when he wrote them 100 years ago.

My dad was a college professor and an astronomer. He was my inspiration, my role model for learning how to care about people and ideas. From my earliest memories, I most wanted to emulate him. I have been extremely fortunate to be able to do that, and take great satisfaction in his praise for the things that I have done in my work.

My parents are at the top of my ‘most admired’ list, my dad for his way of inspiring others to be curious and my mom for her non-judgmental way of relating to all people. Also on the list would be Einstein for his ability to think beyond the constraints of his time and Abraham Lincoln for his courage and leadership in a very divisive time.

I do not remember dreams. I hope that means when I sleep, my mind really does rest. Unfortunately, that also means when I am unable to quiet my mind, I usually do not sleep at all. Fortunately, that does not happen often, and when it does I often get my most creative work done.


David Alexander

David Alexander shares a few thoughts on the fabric of our universe, his take on humor, Abraham Lincoln, Pluto and his own new digs in Idaho.