Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

It's a Living: Wayne Harris-Wyrick, Astronomer at Science Museum Oklahoma

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

It's a Living: Wayne Harris-Wyrick, Astronomer at Science Museum Oklahoma

Article excerpt

What do a Walt Disney character and the end of the world have in common, aside from being trendy topics that people ask Wayne Harris- Wyrick about?

They represent pop culture curiosities that get tangled in legitimate science, and part of Harris-Wyrick's job as astronomer and director of the Science Museum Oklahoma planetarium is to help people understand where one ends and the other begins.

Pluto, for example, had been discovered and identified as a planet about a decade before the name was picked up by Disney animators for Mickey Mouse's dog in 1930, Wyrick said. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union clarified the definition of planets, bumping Pluto into a new category of so-called dwarf planets, actually smaller than several moons around other planets. The reclassification caught the public's attention; Harris-Wyrick was called on many times to explain the situation.

Lately the big deal has been 2012. But that's more of a calendar glitch, akin to the Y2K scare a few years ago when people worried about the collapse of computer technology, he said. According to popular belief, ancient Mayan astronomers foretold the end of the world this December, a fate that is thought somehow to be tied to planetary alignments. Harris-Wyrick knows better.

"Some people claim that we're going to be aligned with something, which is totally false," he said. "We're aligned with the center of the galaxy every Dec. 21. So I've never understood that part of the argument. From the Mayan point of view, this was just the start of a new calendar cycle."

The topics don't bother Harris-Wyrick - to the contrary, even the most off-beat questions reveal an authentic desire to seek out real knowledge and to understand the universe, he said. That's part of the reason his in-house title among his colleagues is Celestial Wizard.

"We keep people updated on the latest discoveries and technologies, like if there's a comet coming or a major meteor shower or eclipse, it's part of my job to let them know when and where and what to look for," he said. …

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