What does Stephen Hawking have in common with Andrew Fraknoi, chair of the Foothill College astronomy department? They are both "honorary members" of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
"I was just totally surprised and incredibly grateful for this honor," said Fraknoi, who learned of the award last month.
There are only 15 people living at any given time that carry the honorary title -- and all of them have contributed significantly to the field of astronomy. The Foothill professor shares the title with many gifted and hard-working astronomers, including Hawking, who is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist.
"I'm in amazing company," Fraknoi said, noting that many of the honorary members are the very scientists he looked up to while studying astronomy.
"The membership of honorary members is a fairly exclusive group," said Colin Haig, vice president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, or RASC. Since its foundation in 1868, the society has honored many great astronomers for various reasons. Honorary members have included public figures, innovators, observers and theoreticians.
Fraknoi's major contribution is that he has been "great at helping people understand astronomy," Haig said. The Foothill College professor has done this in many ways. In partnership with Disney, he wrote a children's book called Disney's Wonderful World of Space; he founded Project ASTRO, a national program that brings hands-on astronomy experiences to elementary, middle and high school students; and he edited an extensive resource guide for astronomy teachers, "The Universe at Your Fingertips."
Keeping in step with the digital revolution, Fraknoi has even started a Facebook page focused on astronomical developments. It's called The Astro-Prof and can be found at www.facebook.com/Fraknoi.
"Being able to articulate why people should care about astronomy is extremely valuable," Haig said. "Many people don't directly see how scientists, engineers and technologists are making the world a better place." Fraknoi helps average people cut through the scientific jargon, he said.
And he also goes out of his way to combat misinformation.
"There's so much misunderstanding and people are very susceptible to what we call 'pseudo-science,' superstition and strange things they read in the tabloids," said Mary Lou Whitehorne, president of the RASC. "He's the kind of guy who can help you see through it."
Whitehorne nominated Frakoi to be an honorable member of her organization, in part because he teaches critical thinking to students and teaches teachers how to teach critical thinking. "We need to have facts," Whitehorne said. "We need to understand what's going on. If we can't we're doomed."
In her mind, there is nobody to better provide the facts than Fraknoi. "For a couple of decades he has been an international role model in astronomy education," Whitehorne said. "My point of view is that he is the gold standard in astronomy education globally."
When asked to respond to Whitehorne's word's, Fraknoi said, "I blush." However, he added, he has "worked very hard to be the kind of teacher that is accessible as well as accurate." His goal is to make people appreciate astronomy as much as he does.
"If someone who didn't think they liked science can take my class and feel even a little bit of the passion that I feel -- that's what I live for."
Fraknoi was educated at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley. He appears regularly on radio programs on KGO and KQED; he is the first community college professor to become an honorary member of the RASC; and, according to Haig, "He is one of the most passionate, caring and dedicated people in the field."