Clips, Hyperlocal

Teaching Under A Starry Sky

On the days he has the blessings of the weather gods, he likes to hold his classes under a clear, star-lit sky. On other days, he’s content with meeting his students in the indoor settings of a studio.

He designs telescopes for a hobby, and reads science-fiction when he’s unwinding. If this sounds like someone straight out of the Star Fleet Academy in the “Star Trek” series, then, there’s good reason for that.

Dr. Larry Browning, physics professor at South Dakota State University, shares a cosmic bond with celestial objects. He’s a teacher of astronomy and an amateur astronomer.

The Collegian caught up with him a few days ago, in his natural habitat, while he was out with his students, scanning the Brookings sky for a glimpse of the stars.

A native of Pikeville, a mountainous little town in eastern Kentucky, Browning moved to upstate New York at the age of 18 as a freshman at Syracuse University.

After acquiring a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, he headed back west to Indiana, to the prestigious Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, where he shifted academic gears, of sorts, by earning a master’s degree and a doctorate in physics.

Before donning the mantle of a professor, his scholarly pursuits had taken him on a trans-Atlantic trip to Liege, in Belgium and Pisa, in Italy, where he spent three months each.

He was on the last leg of his academic marathon when he took up a teaching job at Marquette University, Wisconsin, in the mid-1980s.

Browning teaches “Descriptive Astronomy” to a class of 120. Speaking about his teaching method, he said, “My course is taught using the Digital Dakota Network. Some of my students are in the studio, some on-campus, some off-campus—watching the class on television and on the Internet.

“I once had a student, who used to attend the class from her living room in Belle Fourche,” he added. “If she had a question, she’d raise her hand, I would see her on the TV monitor and ask her what her question was. My classes are broadcast live, as recordings, and as streaming video.”

Browning has been one of the brains behind the South Dakota State University observatory, due to be operational by the summer of 2004.

“It was some years ago that we thought of building an observatory that could be remotely controlled by a computer, since it gets too cold up here. The dome has been completed and it should be up this summer,” he said.

A study of stars, supernovae, and spiral galaxies isn’t Browning’s only claim to fame. He has another, one that’s less sublime, however.

He’s had a cannibal for a neighbor—none other than Jeffrey Dahmer, the notorious Milwaukee criminal, who feasted on acid-dissolved, rotting, human remains and preserved severed male heads in refrigerators.

Speaking animatedly, Browning said, “Soon after I’d taken up a faculty position at Marquette University, I bought a house close to the university so that I could walk to work. It wasn’t until after I arrived in Brookings that I learnt who I’d had for a neighbor!”

Hard to say if this has anything to do with his stars, but Browning’s life stories certainly pack a punch. His arrival in Brookings in early 1990 coincided with the Hobo Day riots, very day the town was ablaze.

As if this wasn’t eventful enough, Browning had more action coming his way when he first started teaching astronomy at South Dakota State University.

Walking down memory lane to 1991, he said, “The broadcast of my astronomy class was in progress when it was interrupted by the first Gulf War. President Bush came online announcing that any minute now, he’d take over the airwaves. And sure enough, he did.”

When he’s not teaching, he loves to play with his two kids, Joseph, 2 and Emily, 7. A classical music aficionado (Mozart and Bach being his favorite composers), he also enjoys watching television. “I hate country music”, he says wincing.

He met his wife, Della, in the Hilton Briggs Library. Love blossomed when he was working on a book. “She was working as an acquisition librarian then and she’d help me get the books I needed,” he said.

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