• Podcast
  • Mar 08 2021

'Behind the Blue': Peering Deep Into Our Universe With Gary Ferland

Students often are figuratively encouraged to ‘reach for the stars’ — yet, there are those who actually follow this aspirational goal in a very literal way.

For example, longtime University of Kentucky Professor Gary Ferland, of the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences, recently received a very rare honor for his work in blazing new trails in his chosen field.

On this episode of "Behind the Blue," UK Public Relations and Strategic Communications’ Carl Nathe talks with Ferland about his life, his career, and why he loves working with students.

"Behind the Blue" is available on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and Spotify. Become a subscriber to receive new episodes of “Behind the Blue” each week. UK’s latest medical breakthroughs, research, artists and writers will be featured, along with the most important news impacting the university.

For questions or comments about this or any other episode of "Behind the Blue," email BehindTheBlue@uky.edu or tweet your question with #BehindTheBlue. Transcripts for this or other episodes of Behind the Blue can be downloaded from the show’s blog page. You can watch a video version of this podcast here.

To discover what’s wildly possible at the University of Kentucky, click here.


KODY KISER: Welcome to Behind the Blue. I'm Kody Kiser with UK Public Relations and Strategic Communications. Students are often figuratively encouraged to reach for the stars, yet there are those who actually follow this aspirational goal in a very literal way. For example, longtime University of Kentucky Professor of Physics and Astronomy Gary Ferland, who recently received a very rare honor for his work in blazing new trails in his chosen field.

On this episode of Behind the Blue, UK PR's Carl Nathe talks with Ferland about his life, his career and why he loves working with students.


CARL NATHE: We are very pleased to be joined on this edition of the Behind the Blue podcast by Gary Ferland, who's a long time professor here at the University of Kentucky. Gary, I'm going to leave it to you give us your title. I know you you've got more than one title.

We're going to get to some of the Honors you've earned in your great career. But what is your title at the University?

GARY FERLAND: Officially, it's Professor of Physics and Astronomy. Though, we don't really use titles in that part of campus.

CARL NATHE: Well, you've had a most interesting career, most interesting life. Let's take us back, if you will, to the beginning where you grew up and where you were educated and so forth.

GARY FERLAND: My father was a pilot in the Air Force so I grew up all over the place and moved around every 30 months. And so I was around the flight line all the time. And there were lots of really fantastic airplanes constantly flying over.

And my lifetime goal was to become a pilot in the Air Force. Unfortunately, when I was an early teenager, the glasses hit. And that version of the Air Force didn't deal with glasses, so that was closed. And once you're looking up, just keep going that direction and the stars are next.

And simultaneously, the space program-- the manned space program was happening-- human space flight. And that really captured the imagination. And we can't appreciate today just how much that was just new and marvelous and wonderful and like a new universe.

And it really captivated the public imagination. There's a lot of enthusiasm for the early human spaceflight leading up to the moon landings. And so that was a resonance both with looking up into the sky and the Air Force background, the human space flight.

So my timing in some ways was just perfect when I decided I wanted to become an astronaut or a pilot or that kind of thing. And astronomy was the next thing. And they said we'll go off and be a physics major as an undergraduate. So I went off and did that.

So my father's last station was in San Antonio. A lot of Air Force bases in San Antonio. Ended up at the University of Texas. And by the time I got my bachelor's degree, NASA had basically been shut down after the Apollo was gone. That [INAUDIBLE] was gone and astronomy was what was left. And that is what I continued to do.

And Texas had an observatory out in West Texas, McDonald Observatory. And it didn't look like I would be able to do any better than where I already was. And stayed in Austin and was very fortunate to be out at the observatory one night when, unexpectedly, a new star just blew up. It became one of the brightest stars in the sky for about two weeks.

Nobody had any idea what this new star was or even exactly where it was in the sky. With a really big telescope, it can be hard to point it at a place in the sky if you don't know the computer coordinates. It took a while to point a telescope at the sky. And I remember to this day, looking through the eyepiece at this star that was so bright that it hurts your eyes looking at it through a big telescope.

No one knew what it was, what was going on. If it was dangerous to the earth. And here I had this big telescope with lots of instrumentation and I could find out what was happening. And so that became a life mission. So it was a turning point.

CARL NATHE: Wow. That's very interesting. Now, you're at the University of Texas, you get your undergraduate degree in physics. Before we go any further, at the University of Kentucky, you're grouped within the College of Arts and Sciences. And it's physics and astronomy.

And those fields are interconnected, hence why you're aligned the way you are, right?

GARY FERLAND: In universities of our size, that's the best way to get things together. Because then you have these resources and things-- the graduate program, that kind of thing-- that you're doing. And then you have a lot of hands, a lot of capable hands can help out.

If we were at-- a university of size if UK were to fracture off into an astronomy department, we'd only have five or six people in the department. And those kinds of departments don't thrive. It's just too much work for too few people. So I think we are in the best situation with a 30-person physics department all helping out.

We get along very well. And physics and astronomy, every passing year, are coming closer and closer together. And they're not really such different fields as they have been. It's just the right way to do it.

CARL NATHE: Pretty good. Now, when you got your PhD at the University of Texas, looks like a very exciting opportunity came your way. Cambridge University, you went there to participate in research in the late '70s.

GARY FERLAND: What happened, see, this star blew up right in my face. And so I started studying. It's just matter under duress and very violent conditions. We know what it is today. It's a type of star called a white dwarf, which is the mass of the sun but squeezed into the size of the Earth.

And they're actually fairly common occurrences. One will go off every 20,000 or 30,000 years and doesn't actually hurt the star so they can do it more than once. But the observations I was conducting was matter under extreme conditions. And so I worked on that for several years as a thesis.

And then Cambridge, at that time, had this big, big interest on supermassive black holes. These are the black holes in the center of galaxies. And so Martin Rees, who is now Lord Rees, was my head of project to look at gas very, very close to these super big black holes. These are black holes with a billion times the mass of the sun-- 100 million times the mass of the sun.

So they needed an expert who knew exactly what I had been doing for the last couple of years. Although, I was doing it on a star-- material near a star. And they were interested in material near a black hole. It's actually the same basic physics. And so they made an offer. I went out there, moved to England, lived there for several years.

It was a wonderful time. It was just such a different world than I had experienced in Austin. And a different way of doing things, a different lifestyle. And actually one of the biggest things-- this sounds silly, but this is one of the biggest reasons I'm still here today. Cambridge is an ancient medieval city. And you're not going to get a car into Cambridge because those streets are too narrow and they're designed for a horse-- a horse 1,000 years ago.

And so nearly everybody rode bicycles absolutely everywhere. And I knew when I left Cambridge that I had to go somewhere where I could ride a bike to work and afford to live. Well, you can count those places on the fingers of one hand. And Lexington just really stuck out as one of them.

One of the attractions at UK was that UK had exactly the same computer as Cambridge University did. And the reason for that is Lexington had a huge IBM plant, which eventually became Lexmark. And IBM was famous for putting their plants into wonderful places to live. They wanted their employees to be very happy and contented.

So there was an IBM plant in Austin. So Austin is famous for its music scene and art scene and all that. And there was an IBM plant here in Lexington. So if you made a list of the towns that had IBM plants, these were all fabulous places to live. And then if you whittle down how many of those are you going to ride a bike to work.

So you're almost down to the number of thumbs on one hand. And so Lexington was just a perfect fit with all those ingredients. I've gotten job offers. People have tried to recruit me away in the time since. And without exception, it would involve driving a car half an hour to work. And I'm not going to do that.

I live in a part of Lexington, so I have a 10 mile bike ride to and from work every day. And that has tremendous health benefits. So this is a delightful place to live with a lot of strong support for doing computer work.

CARL NATHE: When you came to the University of Kentucky, first, as an assistant then eventually, associate professor-- and if I'm right, you were here for about five years. But then you did take a little detour with your career. I mean, a detour in a good way. Go ahead.

GARY FERLAND: Ohio State recruited me away. They were building up a big astronomy department. And so in the meantime, I had met my wife and married her. And she had moved here from California because she wanted to be near the horses. So she does thoroughbred race horses.

And so I had a wife who did thoroughbred race horses. And in all the world the Bluegrass of Kentucky was number one. There's no place better to live. I moved up to Columbus and proceeded to drive a car to work 40 minutes each direction. I absolutely hated that.

There's no way to ride a bike to work in Columbus. Just not be safe or practical. And so we lasted there five or six years. And we realized, way better in Lexington. Why did we do this? And the Center for Computational Sciences was, by that time, going full swing.

And John Connally, the director, had a package and brought me back. So that was a very nice time that really worked out. So it was the horses and the bike. You can't get away from the two of those.

CARL NATHE: Well, the good news is you've been back here for going on 20-- well, 29 years going on 30, I guess, as a professor at the University of Kentucky. And you mentioned John Connally in the Center for Computational Sciences. Your most recent Honor, we want to congratulate you.

You've been named elected as a Fellow at the American Astronomical Society. And I read a story about with that Honor. And I believe in that story, you mentioned the impact of the Center for Computational Science and how it played a role. And there's kind of a project that you've been involved with a long period of time. Talk about that, if you would.

GARY FERLAND: Well, UK had this very long investment in supercomputers. The rumor that we were told is because IBM would give away a computer 30, 40 years ago if they had a big plan to [INAUDIBLE] nurture just this friendship with the community. So it had a-- going way back, there was a strong investment in high-end computing.

And then while I was away, the state reorganized how it supported that part of the University. Stronger state support came in. John Connally was hired here at UK from-- he had been a program officer at the NSF. And he wanted to establish the Center for Computational Sciences as a premier research cluster, drawing together people with many different interests but bound together by the common interest in computer work.

So the center is still here. John has since retired. But for 20 years or so, he provided every possible assistance to make life easier for the project I was doing and the kind of work I was doing.

CARL NATHE: And let's talk about that. I know I'm jumping around on you a little bit here. But let's talk about that particular project a little bit.

GARY FERLAND: Well, the problem in astronomy is we can't do an experiment. Here in the solar system, we can. We can send spacecraft out. But if you get out to interesting distances, the nearest star is four light years away, the nearest galaxy a couple million light years away. We can't go there and touch it and make an experiment.

And unfortunately, as much fun as Star Trek is, if the laws of physics as we understand it, that will never happen. It will take hundreds of thousands or millions of years to go out and explore. So what astronomers are good at is remote sensing. It's kind of like spy satellites watching something else.

So we can sit here on the Earth and we can observe. We can't do an experiment. We have an advantage. We have an advantage that we have over a physics. In physics, you can do an experiment. But we have an advantage-- we can't do an experiment, but we have a time machine. So we can look back in time.

If you want to go find out what was going on in our galaxy a billion years ago, all you got to do is find a galaxy, something like ours, that's a billion light years away from us. It takes a light a billion years to travel a billion light years. So you're looking at a billion years back in time.

And so we can see all the way back 14 billion years ago. And so we can look out there and look back in time. But all we can do is look at the light. And so what I started doing was working on a big computer program that would, in a computer, would take the laws of physics-- atomic physics, quantum mechanics, physical mechanics, thermodynamics, rate of transfer. All those laws of physics. Huge list of equations.

So each one of those, we know exactly how to handle that. And put it together, and what you can do in the computer is do a what if scenario. You ask what would happen if you had gas a million miles away from a black hole with this particular density and pressure. And so what the goal is to predict what kind of light it would produce, because that's what our telescopes can measure.

So what the program does is do a complete simulation on a computer. And then it tells you what the telescope would see. So this is an example of what's called the inverse problem. We know the answer. We know the light that came out of the distant object. We're trying to figure out the question.

What happened out there that produced that light? There's a uniqueness problem. 42 is the answer to a lot of different questions. But what we do in astronomy is we get the light, analyze it as best we can to see what we have received. And then using this computer programs-- it's called Cloudy, it's very widely used-- that you can run Cloudy and set up a scenario.

I'll use that word. Say, we have a black hole here. The gas near a black hole is emitting this kind of light. And then you take-- well, if I have a cloud sitting over here with thicker density, we can answer the question of what kind of light that would produce. And then we can then compare that prediction with what we're seen at the telescope and then adjust what we assumed happened out there.

And so this is the way we make progress in astronomy. We can't do an experiment. We have to observe what we receive-- what we happen to receive from the cosmos. And then here on the Earth, try to set up the same deal in a computer and see if we can reproduce what was seen.

CARL NATHE: And a interesting name-- a simple name. But Cloudy seems very appropriate.

GARY FERLAND: Well, I got to tell you about that. So I got it to Cambridge and there was-- they had a big connection with people at Caltech in Southern California near Los Angeles. And so what would happen is the people from Caltech would show up in Cambridge.

And East Anglia is notoriously cloudy. So my father told me when he was in the Air Force in World War II, they told him, if you ever got lost over Europe, just-- coming back from Germany or something like that-- just find the biggest, darkest, densest cloud you can find, and you can be sure England is under it. So you never get too lost.

So we're on the ground underneath all these clouds, and the people from Southern California were constantly complaining because it was so cloudy. And so I just arrived from Texas, which is to kind of like a barren desert. And so I had this office that looked out on this meadow with tall growing grass.

And then there were either cows or horses grazing about 10 feet in front of my office on this grass. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. And here all these people who were complaining, it's cloudy, it's cloudy. Yeah, that's great. I like cloudy. So it rained a lot, but it was very, very green. It was beautiful, lush green foliage everywhere. And then the animals were out grazing.

So it was named after the East Anglian weather. Named after of the weather in Cambridge.

CARL NATHE: We have some common ground. My father was in World War II and was in the Army Air Corps, I guess, which was kind of the forerunner of the Air Force. He was a navigator on--

GARY FERLAND: My father was too.

CARL NATHE: --B-24 and often talked about Europe. And of course, it was his job to make sure they were going on the right course and using all the-- they don't they didn't have all the sophisticated instrumentation that they do now on airplanes. And I'm sure your dad knew all that. But it's interesting when you talk to somebody, it's another way that the world is big but it's small.

GARY FERLAND: Right, it's a small world.

CARL NATHE: Now, I guess, a term that this Cloudy program lends itself to-- am I right? The term is spectroscopy?

GARY FERLAND: Right. So in much of science, CSI TV shows show a lot of it. The best way to do remote sensing, if you can see something, what you do is take the light that you receive-- most people think about that. They think about pictures.

There's a fantastic website that NASA finances called the Astronomy Picture of the Day. And it shows you-- just Google it. And it shows a spectacular image every single day. So those are a lot of fun. In fact, I look at it every single day. But that's mostly not what we do.

It's a lot of fun to look at, but you can't really get hard numbers out of a picture. And so what astronomers do and chemists and physicists and medicine everywhere, you would take the light and then pass it through an instrument so that you can see the rainbow-- disperse it into a rainbow. If you look at a rainbow, you're doing spectroscopy.

So you disperse it into the various colors. And if you look very carefully, an astronomical source or even an incandescent light bulb here on the Earth, is not a pure rainbow. It has certain very, very bright colors. Out in space, you can find stars have certain very dark colors, their colors are missing.

And that pattern of emission and absorption super bright, super dark has a lot of information about what kind of elements are out there, how hot it is, what the pressure is. So that's what Cloudy does. In fact, one of the mission goals is you would take the spectrum-- take the rainbow that you would get-- of course, for ages, we did that in visible light.

But nowadays, you can do that in the x-ray and ultraviolet with space telescope and infrared. So all of those are now available to us. The other thing that's marvelous about being at UK, riding a bike and having the horses is back in the old days, long ago, every university that wanted to compete had to spend $5 or $10 million to buy their own big telescope.

Well, nowadays, today, we're looking at things that are so far away that you have to build a billion dollar telescope to see them. And then if you talk about these other kinds of light like x-ray light, ultraviolet light, some types of infrared, you got to get into orbit. So now you're talking several billion dollars.

Well, no University can afford that. No one country can even afford that. So what happens is half a dozen, dozen countries get together to-- a space telescope is financed by a number of countries. And all modern missions are. And what that means is that the playing ground is super level.

So here at the University of Kentucky, we have exactly the same access to all those on orbit or huge telescopes that you do at Princeton or Harvard or Caltech. And of course, the Caltech's the worst case. If you live in Caltech, you're going to drive a car 90 minutes every day each direction. So you're going to spend three hours a day in a car.

Here in Lexington, and you spend-- I spend 40 minutes a day on a bicycle. So that's a very different lifestyle.

CARL NATHE: Now, I wanted to ask you, speaking of Lexington and the University of Kentucky, the MacAdam Observatory at UK, named for Dr. Keith McAdam, who sadly passed away several years ago. But let's talk about that. And do you and students make use of that on a regular basis?

GARY FERLAND: Sure. It's used as a teaching instrument. The decision had been made-- the University of Louisville build a similar observatory. And they tried to get as far from town as they could to get really dark skies. So to actually see the skies, what you want to do is get into a really dark place. Most people today have never seen the Milky Way because they live close to cities.

So you've got to go way, way far away to really get a good view. And the problem is is you can run, but you can't avoid the light. If you run away-- if you say, drive 10 miles away-- put your student observatory 10 miles outside of town, well, just wait 10 years and the lights will catch up to you. So that's what happened to Louisville.

So we decided to optimize student safety and convenience, and we put it on central campus. And so we have a sky talk once a month. Is a public talk and it's meant to be kind of approachable from middle school students, high school students, they hope, the public. Everybody's invited.

And then after the sky talk, weather permitting, we go over across the street-- across Rose street to the top of the parking structure number four and there is the observatory. So convenient parking. It's very safe, secure location.

You might seem a little bit odd to put an observatory inside a city. But there are ways to deal with that and we get the convenience and the safety for the students. It's right on UK's safety corridor. So it's there.

And you can do a surprising number of things with that kind of telescope. For instance, undergraduate students here at UK have detected planets around other stars using that observatory. Ron Wilhelm, a member of our faculty is an expert at that. And he's developed a technique. On a routine basis, there they're measuring planets around other stars star systems with that telescope.

So there are lots of projects you can do. Probably the thing we're most after, we think-- most people think, astronomy and stars and all that, go watch a movie. But if you walk out to the observatory and if it's pointed as, say, Jupiter or Saturn or the Moon or another star, you can walk up to the eyepiece and there striking your eye is light that bounced off the surface of the Moon a second ago. Or light that came from another star 1,000 years ago.

And so the light came all the way across space and made it through the telescope. And it's actually hitting your eyes. So that's a human experience that you can't get just looking on the internet at photos. So we use it for public outreach with the sky talk. Invite people to come in to Lexington, come down UK.

A lot of people have not visited UK in that kind of a capacity. Come down to the chem physics building and have a nice big lecture hall and friendly people and hopefully, a good talk. And then that's in the early evening around sunset when it gets dark, we walk across Rose street. There is the observatory up on the parking structure.

And if it's clear, they have a chance to look at the sky. If it's not clear, we can still look at the telescope.

CARL NATHE: Wonderful. Gary Ferland is our guest, Professor at the University of Kentucky. And I mentioned earlier in our interview that this career of yours in astronomy and astrophysics, physics and astronomy is your department at the University of Kentucky. But it's literally taking you around the world, not only to Cambridge University in England, but you've been in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Mexico, Chile, Poland.

It's quite a career you've had. But the neatest thing about it, to me, is that science is a kind of a universal thing. Your information-- the languages may be a little different that you speak in, but there is a scientific language that you all understand.

GARY FERLAND: The wonderful thing about astronomy is-- one time I was going into another country and I had a copy of this big computer program on a magnetic tape. And I got to the customs and they wanted to know exactly what was on the magnetic tape. And so I ended up getting interviewed for about half an hour. And finally, customs let me in the country.

So they agreed that I had nothing of value. So nothing we have has any value, like money. And so you don't go into this field if you want to make a lot of money or become super famous. So the people who have come into the field are very collegial. They share things. We all share things.

One thing that's very strong today is this realize that much of this is supported by taxpayer dollars. And so anything in orbit, the taxpayers in many countries have paid for it. So it's the people of the country that paid for it. So in many ways, the people the country should own the product.

And so everything is openly shared. There's no big secrets. The openly share-- the community shares observatories. The observatories are many countries working together. And the knowledge is put out into the common workplace. Everybody has access to the knowledge.

And nowadays, most countries even have laws that if taxpayer money has been used to support something, everything that comes out of it needs to be openly accessible to everybody. The taxpayers own it, not the person who was helped out by the taxes. So there is this, first of all, the personalities that come into the field, I think, by nature are very collegial people and like to share.

And all the materials we deal with are almost exclusively supported somehow by taxes somewhere. The observatories in particular, the big computers that we have to use. And then that brings in the open access part. It is one big family. It's like that.

There aren't that many astronomers. The whole planet has about 6,000 astronomers in my field [INAUDIBLE] supermassive black holes, what are called quasars. There's maybe 300 people that are working at it. So that's not even like a large high school. And so you can know the other people in your field.

It's not it's not like medicine or chemistry where there's tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people doing it. It's just a few hundred. And after a while, you can kind of know people either by reputation or you actually met them.

CARL NATHE: You sound to me you're fairly modest about your accomplishments. But I do want to talk about, what was your reaction when you found out that you were named, just very recently, as a Fellow of the American Astronomical Society?

Because you talk about a small family. That's a small family of people. Well, not everybody gets nominated or invited to be part of that.

GARY FERLAND: Well, it's a great honor and it's perseverance over a lot of years. So the citation was for this computer program called Cloudy. So it was born on August 28, 1978. And it plugged away at it and it has reached out across the astronomical community.

So it's become one of the tools that is widely used in astronomy. And so that's the computer supported through the center of computational sciences. And it was one thing that really helped a lot. The fact that it was a requirement that everything be open access was another thing that made it open access to everybody who could have it.

So this is persistence I think over many years that led to that. No, it was a great honor and very pleased and very happy.

CARL NATHE: A couple more questions and we'll give you a chance to have the final word. But I don't want to take too much more of your time. But I am interested, obviously, you wouldn't be doing this at the University of Kentucky as long as you've been doing it if you didn't love working with students, teaching students, guiding students. Talk about that part of your career.

GARY FERLAND: Well, it's a wonderful experience because a young person brings enthusiasm and joy to a new subject of learning. And if you were just by yourself in a closet working on the same thing for 40 years, you'd probably get kind of burned out or bored or something like that. And so the students bring in an energy that you can feed off of.

They don't know everything. It's a little bit like having your two-year-old help paint the house. If you just want to get the house painted, maybe the two-year-old's not really the best thing to bring in. But I have in your two-year-old help out becomes a memory that you remember the rest of your life. I do.

So there is that joy of a person-- another human being that wants to do this, isn't able to quite yet, but wants to learn. And they're learning new and wonderful things. So that brings a perspective to what's going on.

CARL NATHE: Let me ask you this. And I'm not asking you any big inside secrets or anything. But you have been doing this a long time. You are, if I do the math-- I'm semi-retired, but you're in a stage where you could figuratively ride your bike off into the sunset.

But it sounds to me like I'm talking to somebody that still has a great love for the work you do.

GARY FERLAND: Well, looking at Fauci and the COVID response. So he's 80 years old. And he obviously loves what he's doing. You listen to him talk, he has the mind of a young person and enthusiasm of a young person. So this keeps you young. And keeping going and having this kind of engagement keeps you very young.

So the staff at Cambridge when I was there in the '70s have all retired. They have a mandatory retirement age in England. And last time I was in Cambridge, just before the pandemic, there were all the same-- they were all retired, but they were still coming to work. This is too much fun. This is what I want to do with my life.

So what is there you would do if you stopped doing this? I don't know. It's a lot of fun. So I think you're very-- the most fortunate thing that can happen to a person is to find a career that's not a vocation-- it's something that you just truly love and it brings joy to your life and a sense of fulfillment and a good reason to get up in the morning.

So there's nothing else I think I'd rather do. And I'm going to keep doing it as long as I can.

CARL NATHE: Excellent. Well, ride that bike every day for 40 minutes or so on your way to and from work, I'm sure that helps. Like you said, that keeps the blood pumping.

GARY FERLAND: It really does. Speaking of graduate students, some of my students can't keep up with me. And they're less than half my age. But it's a great gift, being able to do that. And own a home with a yard and a dog and have a reasonable job and ride a bike.

You add that mix up, and ask, where can you do that? There are very few places you can pull that off.

CARL NATHE: Let me ask you. I was always like my last question or statement of an interview to be, I like to give you the opportunity to add anything maybe that I haven't asked about or a summary comment. Here is your opportunity.

GARY FERLAND: So what does a University bring to the Commonwealth and what is astronomy bring to the Commonwealth? Well, it's expensive. It'd be a lot cheaper just to have stripped away the research dimension and just have the large classes. What a research University like UK does bring to a community is you have people that are super excited about what they're doing and they bring that excitement to the young people in their classes.

So graduate classes are very specialized. And most graduate students are going to leave here-- leave Kentucky. But we also teach large introductory astronomy classes. So these classes typically fill the room-- the big lecture room in chem physics. So that's 175 people pre-COVID.

We would have about 1,000 students a semester taking the large astronomy classes. So these are non-technical classes meant to be approachable to anybody. And so it's an opportunity to really explain what it is that science is doing. I always remember a comment I heard John White Brown-- so a former-- a long time ago, former governor of Kentucky.

When he was made governor, someone said, well, you were a student at UK all those years in a law degree. Are you going to play favorites for the University of Kentucky? And so John White Brown, clearly a very smart man, said, well, I was at the University for eight years or something like that. And they didn't teach me a single thing that helped me in my fried chicken business.

And so I thought to myself, boy, the people who-- they had this guy, a very smart guy-- they had him in their classes and they were not able to explain why this stuff is important and why the governor really does need to support this kind of activity so that the kinds of things that are happening can be spread out across the Commonwealth, either through the student observatory or through other things.

So I thought the instructors he had missed an opportunity by instructing him. So when I look out at introductory astronomy class, there was probably a Mitch McConnell and a John White Brown and a few more just like it sitting out there. These are big classes. Over the years, they've got 20,000 students or so.

And this is an opportunity to really explain why I think this is important. So I see that is a really important mission in that part. And that spirit of what it is science is trying to do and why it makes society better is something that's really best done by someone who's actually down there in the science and doing everyday science and really exploring the frontier.

Otherwise, you just become book stuff-- very academic kind of book learning. Very dry.

CARL NATHE: Well, Gary Ferland--

GARY FERLAND: I see it as a mission-- as a mission.

CARL NATHE: Excellent. Well, it has been a delight to talk to you. We probably should have done this a while back. But on the occasion of being elected as a Fellow of the American Astronomical Society, we congratulate you. Thank you for your time. And wish you continued health and success here at the University of Kentucky.

GARY FERLAND: Thank you very much. A great honor.

CARL NATHE: Gary Ferland has been our guest. And we thank you all for listening to the Behind the Blue podcast.