Professor emeritus narrows space between astronomy, environmentalism
Professor emeritus Ben Zuckerman advocates for environmentalism and sustainability at UCLA after a long career in physics and astronomy. (Jessica Zhou/Daily Bruin)
March 1, 2016 12:12 a.m.
As a child, Ben Zuckerman’s father routinely took him to visit a planetarium in New York to foster his early curiosity in the stars.
The light pollution in New York City made it difficult for him to stargaze, igniting his concern for the environment. Zuckerman, now a professor emeritus in physics and astronomy, continues to pursue his environmental advocacy efforts at UCLA.
After graduating from high school at 15, Zuckerman worked 70 hours a week to support himself during his undergraduate education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Zuckerman graduated from MIT at 19, and continued paying for his education independently, pursuing his doctoral degree in astronomy at Harvard University.
By sixth grade, Zuckerman had narrowed his career options – he would be a farmer or an astronomer. His interest in space eventually led him to his career in astronomy, but not the one he expected.
Zuckerman dreamed of exploring space from a young age, but his research in astronomical science, ranging from life and the universe to the evolution of planetary systems, allows him a grounded perspective of the stars from afar. He has since published about 200 research papers and books.
Alice Shapley, a professor in the physics and astronomy department and Zuckerman’s office neighbor who has known him for eight years, said their friendship developed over discussions about their research on solar planets and the formation of galaxies.
“(When we met), he just seemed to have a lot of ideas and he was a very good conversationalist,” Shapley said. “He’s unusual because in addition to his research, he has a lot of interests outside of work, with regards to the environment.”
Eric Becklin, former professor in physics and astronomy, said he and Zuckerman worked together in researching and discovering one of the first brown dwarfs in 1988. Becklin, a friend of Zuckerman for almost 50 years, said Zuckerman’s passion translates into innovative ideas and environmental advocacy.
Zuckerman serves on the board of directors of the Sierra Club and as a director of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
“For the past 20 years, I’ve had two parallel careers,” he said.
Zuckerman said his scientific background influenced his interest in environmental issues and spurred him to advocate for change and conservation. He previously researched human and animal consumption and pollution.
“In my opinion, our species has never developed a political or economic system that can support sustainably more than 7 billion people at the per capita consumption level desired by most people,” Zuckerman said. “So something has to break at some point.”
Zuckerman said he thinks global pandemics, nuclear and resource wars, climate change or oceanic pollution could occur if overconsumption and overpopulation do not decrease.
He added he thinks many of UCLA’s buildings and facilities waste energy. Zuckerman said the lights in the Terasaki Life Sciences Building were on after midnight on New Year’s Day, and added he thinks the energy use was unnecessary because no one was working in the building then.
Nurit Katz, UCLA’s chief sustainability officer, said due to regulation and safety protocols, some lights at UCLA have to remain on at night, including those that light dark areas of campus and in buildings where faculty and students may need to enter after hours. She added there are many other buildings and facilities that could have their lights off at night without breaking any rules.
Zuckerman attributes the problem to the lack of communication between UCLA administrators and facilities management employees.
“Even if the administration doesn’t care about the environment, they should care about education and giving students the money they waste on the energy,” Zuckerman said.
In 2015, the University of California sold $200 million of investments in coal and oil sands, but still has about $10 billion of investment in the energy industry.
Zuckerman said he urges UCLA students to get involved with environmentalism on campus and support the movement to divest from fossil fuels because he thinks their generation will play a large role in preventing further climate change and other environmental crises.
“I have come to believe that life is a rare phenomenon in the universe,” Zuckerman said. “While no one knows for sure if life is rare or common, it makes sense to protect the one form of life that we know exists.”