The Voice: Summer 2002

The Voice

Hodgson inspires students to study God’s larger toys

By Sally Jongsma

Richard HodgsonAsked how he remains enthusiastic about teaching after thirty-three years, Astronomy Professor Richard Hodgson says, “If you know what’s up there [in the sky], you’re absolutely blown away with awe. We keep finding things that even science fiction writers haven’t thought of.” Passing on that excitement is as much fun today as it was when he began teaching, he says.

For example, information gleaned from the Voyager spacecraft has shown the existence of shepherd satellites around Saturn, satellites that function almost like shepherds or sheep dogs, herding together icy chunks into neat rings around the planet. Farther out, scientists found two satellites in almost the same orbit that they knew from calculations would not be able to pass one another without colliding.

“We’ve learned that every four years, they basically do a little dance that allows them to trade orbits and go on their ways. Our God is amazing,” Hodgson says.

Hodgson urges people to look up into the night sky to drink in God’s great cathedral, as he describes it. It is what keeps him “wildly enthusiastic about the God who created all of these things” and keeps him excited about sharing it with others. He likes to quote John Calvin, saying, “We have been placed here, as in a spacious theatre, to behold the works of God; and there is no work of God so small that we ought to pass by it lightly, but all ought to be carefully and diligently observed.”

Hodgson didn’t begin his working life as an astronomy professor—instead, he was a pastor. But in his mind the two careers aren’t really all that different. As a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church he wanted to serve his parishioners and help them see God. He wants to do the same with his students as a teacher.

Hodgson’s interest in astronomy goes back to his childhood. He recalls a time in eighth grade when he suddenly realized that the scale of the creation was so huge that neither he nor anyone else could possibly comprehend it. He’s continued to teach himself more about astronomy through the years.

Hodgson first became acquainted with Dordt through mailings to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church he pastored in New Jersey. After moving to a second church in Vermont, he also began teaching an astron-
omy course at the University of Vermont. Budget cutbacks eliminated the option for him to teach part-time. But having taught, he wanted to continue. He inquired at Dordt, spoke with then President B.J. Haan, flew out for an interview, and was hired within a couple of weeks. Thirty-three years later he looks back fondly on a successful and stimulating teaching career.

Hodgson was convinced of the importance of a Reformed worldview on life when he came, and he was excited about teaching in a context where he could overtly share his passion and enthusiasm for the Creator as well as the created universe.

“I came hoping to make a career of it here. I wanted to teach in a rural area where I could see the dark skies,” he says, noting though that even Sioux Center skies aren’t as dark as they were in 1969. “There weren’t mercury arc or sodium vapor lights then—people didn’t need to have enough light to perform surgery in a parking lot at three in the morning back then,” he adds wryly.

Hodgson began teaching general physical science as well as astronomy courses in the fall of 1969, reducing the heavy load of Chemistry Professor Russell Maatman. But astronomy courses took on a new urgency that year, he says.

“Just that summer we had landed the first man on the Moon and the whole country realized how little we knew about the Moon and the planets,” he says. Although Dordt College never intended to turn out astron-omers, it knew the importance of training students who understood something about their increasingly space-oriented world.

Dordt has never offered a full astronomy major, but Hodgson has helped inspire a sense of awe for the cosmos in many students over the years who took astronomy to meet one of their general education requirements. He set up an observatory both at his home and at the college for students to view the starry heavens. In 1973 he founded and for ten years edited and published The Minor Planet Bulletin, a quarterly journal on asteroids. In 1984 Minor Planet 2888 Hodgson was named after him by the International Astronomical Union.

Hodgson has found that teaching and learning go hand in hand. While he believes that a good teacher needs to love his students, know his subject very well, and be excited about what he’s teaching, he also needs to be open to learn from them.

“Some of my most exciting learning has been through projects I did with students,” he says. He recalls one seminar with a student where they discovered a process that could produce catastrophic floods long ago on Mars. He and the student pieced together how the deep canyons there were formed, three months before a paper published by NASA gave a similar explanation. That student is now in graduate school in astronomy and planetary chemistry.

Retirement and learning will go hand in hand for Hodgson. He’s recently moved all of his thousands of books and hundreds of journals to a new study in his rural South Dakota home. He also owns the second largest telescope in the state.

“I have a couple of books I’d like to write now that I have the time,” he says. But he’ll also have more time to revel in the majesty of God’s good creation.

“Our God likes some of his toys very large,” he has often said. He can think of nothing more inspiring than listening to “Worthy is the Lamb” and the “Amen”
from Handel’s Messiah as he looks up into the sky.

“Life is such a wonderful gift. It’s still a mystery to me how I’ve been so fortunate as to teach what I want to teach and still be paid for it.”