Provost, Astrophysics and Astronomy. Just another day in Chapel Hill.


By Laurie Paolicelli

Chris Clemens

Most of us do not meet for lunch and chat about stellar seismology, interacting binaries, time-resolved photometry and spectroscopy, and astronomical instrumentation.

But Chris Clemens might. And that’s just one of his many qualifications that led to his appointment this year as Carolina’s executive vice chancellor and provost. The Provost is the chief academic officer of the University of North Carolina and recommends and approves all promotions, retentions, special hires, tenure decisions, and new appointments to the faculty.

Tornado in Oklahoma

Clemens admits he was always a smart kid and sort of a geek. While getting his undergraduate degree at University of Oklahoma, he and his college buddies would watch tornadoes for fun. “In Oklahoma, you can see a long way from a tall building, so we used to go up into the 9th floor of Dale Hall Tower and watch tornadoes when they were 50 miles away. One time we saw three at once.” (Do not try this at home.)

While serving as the director of Carolina’s Institute for Convergent Science, which is interdisciplinary research designed to tackle compelling problems and promote learning, he and Brett Whalen, professor in the College’s history department, developed a 2018 course called “Time and the Medieval Cosmos,” which challenged students to explore the sciences and the humanities together — to think critically about a subject from many points of view.

Students learned that people in the Middle Ages wrestled with scientific questions, even if they framed them differently and were thinking more about them in terms of theology.

For example, early scientists used the cycles of the moon and sun to determine the date of Easter, so Clemens taught students an ancient method for calculating the phase of the moon on any given date of any year using only their left hand.

He earned his doctorate in astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin in 1994 at the same time one of the most famous astrophysicists, Neil deGrasse Tyson, was teaching there. “He was a dynamic professor and his classes filled up very fast,” says Clemmens.

Famous astrophysicists Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Steven Hawkings

Among Clemens’ many accomplishments, he has furthered Carolina’s space-related teaching and research.

Carolina has long ties to deep space. When Morehead Planetarium opened in 1949, it became the first planetarium in the South and one of only eight in the country. Between 1960 and 1975, nearly every astronaut who participated in the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz programs — including Neil Armstrong and John Glenn — came to Morehead Planetarium to study celestial navigation, a critical skill in the event that automatic navigation systems failed while they were in space.

Provost Chris Clemens and Neil Degrasse Tyson love to share education and science with all because as Tyson has said: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

Chris Clemens poses for a photo while wearing Morehead Planetarium solar glasses used for viewing a solar eclipse. (Photo: Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill).

For those interested in astronomy, take a guided tour of the night sky:

Explore the night sky with Morehead Planetarium each month with their free skywatching sessions! Morehead educators along with their partners, RAC (Raleigh Astronomy Club) and CHAOS (Chapel Hill Astronomical & Observational Society) bring telescopes and guide you through fun observations of stars, planets, moons, nebulae, and other celestial objects. You might even see a few meteors!

See Schedule:

Plan a Visit:

Here’s what you need to know to make sure you have an out-of-this-world experience!

Visiting Us – What You Need to Know

Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.

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