The Future of His Students is in the Stars:
Planetarium in Afghanistan is Named for PCCC Professor
Posted December 21, 2016
Shining against a darkened sky, stars have long been a symbol of hope, aspiration, even peace, but for one astronomy educator, stars are more than a symbol. They are an actual means of giving hope, fulfilling aspirations, and making peace.
Gary Swangin, an adjunct professor of astronomy at PCCC and manager of the planetarium at Paterson’s Panther Academy high school, recently received news that, through the efforts of a former student, a new planetarium in Kabul, Afghanistan will be named after him.
“It’s an incredible honor,” said Professor Swangin who teaches for the science program at the College. “We educators like to know we inspired our students, but this was an unbelievable surprise.”
It’s also an extraordinary development in a country where the study of science is often discouraged, and even dangerous, due to opposition from fundamentalists who think science often conflicts with their religious beliefs.
This incredible story began over 40 years ago when Professor Swangin, who was then director of the Newark Planetarium, met Macdonald Homer, a teenager who asked to work at the planetarium in order to pursue his interest in astronomy. Professor Swangin became Homer’s mentor and, later, his friend.
An outstanding student, Homer went on to earn agricultural and biotechnology degrees at Rutgers and Johns Hopkins. He now holds a prestigious position as a foreign service officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development, working in food production for needy countries.
Through his work, Homer heard of the Astronomy Association in Kabul. He reached out and, learning of their struggles to study, helped them to obtain, through the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, funding for new books and for the new structure that will be called the Gary Swangin Planetarium, in honor of his mentor.
Aside from the personal honor, Swangin sees the greater significance in this development.
“No matter what political walls separate people, there is still a community of support among those who share an interest…a bonding that transcends anything else.”
Professor Swangin’s passion for astronomy began with a child’s sense of wonder. “When I was about 6 years old, I remember my mother taking me outside to gaze at the constellations,” he said.
Visits to planetariums followed and young Gary’s interest, and academic talents, developed. Despite a challenging childhood growing up later in foster homes, he went on to a successful career in his chosen field.
Professor Swangin has taught astronomy and astrophysics at Rutgers University, Fairleigh Dickenson University, the County College of Morris, William Paterson University, and numerous New Jersey high schools.
As an international technical consultant for Minolta, Mitsubishi, and other corporations, he traveled worldwide to help develop planetariums and astronomical observatories.
Professor Swangin also covered the Skylab, Voyager, and Viking space missions as a radio and television correspondent and produced radio and video productions for children and adult audiences, including the radio documentary "Are We Alone in the Universe?” a program that won the Ohio State award for "excellence in educational, informational, and public affairs broadcasting" and was also nominated for a Peabody Award.
Despite this impressive resume, the astronomer said that a few years ago, he was feeling down about his contributions to his field. “I never discovered a star or proposed an earth-shaking theory,” he explained.
But then a friend reminded him of his classroom accomplishments, saying “Look at all the lives you touched.” That resonated with the professor.
“When I see the kids, it lifts my spirits,” said Professor Swangin. “They are my stars. It’s my job to ignite them and help them to shine.”
Though his focus is on the skies, Swangin grapples with the mundane as well. Panther Academy is an urban school and funds are tight for such needs as new planetarium equipment.
“These kids really deserve it,” he says.
He also plans to establish at PCCC an online program of astronomy study for Afghan students who may encounter obstacles to studying science in their country.
Professor Swangin may not have discovered a star, but maybe someday one will be named for him by another grateful student who was helped to shine a little brighter.