Dr. Mark Sonntag: Reaching for the Stars
November 26, 2012
From teaching astronomy classes to presenting public star shows, leading elementary school tours and coordinating public telescope viewings of the night sky, Sonntag has been revealing the wonders of the universe to the ASU and West Texas communities for nearly three decades. For his consistent dedication to those activities, he was nominated for a 2012 President’s Award for Faculty Excellence in Leadership/Service.
One of the senior members of the Physics and Geosciences Department, Sonntag is particularly appreciative of that nomination because the process starts at the departmental level.
“Just the fact that someone in your own department would think of nominating you was a thrill,” he said. “It is a big process for that person to go through, and everyone is so busy with other duties. We all like to win, but just being nominated makes me feel good because I have a lot of respect for the people in my department.”
The most visible service Sonntag performs is presenting the public astronomy shows. Since 1985, more than 230,000 visitors of all ages have attended the shows and learned about everything from the latest information on Mars, Saturn and the sun to the makeup of the Milky Way galaxy, the search for the edge of our solar system, black holes and the origin of the telescope.
“I look at getting programs that are not so dated,” Sonntag said. “That way, we can show them brand new and then show them again a few years later, and they will still be of interest to audiences. That is the practical side of it. I also like to have as complete a coverage of subjects as I can. We like to have programs running that are current with events that are happening in the sky. For example, when Mars is bright in the sky and people are looking up wondering what that big orange star is, we like to have our Mars program running.”
“I still have that amateur astronomer in me that enjoys just looking up at the stars.”
In conjunction with some of the astronomy shows, Sonntag also coordinates public telescope viewings when various astral phenomena are visible in West Texas.
“What we are trying to do is get people to look at the real sky, not just simulations in the Planetarium,” Sonntag said. “We’ve got a great program on Saturn, but when you can have people look at Saturn through a telescope and see the rings, it is a whole different experience for them. Looking at the real universe is as big a thrill as anything you can do in a planetarium.”
Sonntag also believes that it is particularly important to reach out to children. In addition to presenting astronomy shows geared toward younger audiences, he also leads about 100 group tours for elementary schools and daycare centers through the Planetarium every year. To date, more than 100,000 of the facility’s visitors have been kids.
“It has been very rewarding to get those kids in here,” Sonntag said. “I’ve even had ASU students in the Physics Department who said they got interested in science because they visited the Planetarium when they were younger.”
“We are not going to turn all our young visitors in to physicists or astronomers, and that is not our goal,” he added. “But, the idea is to give them a positive experience with astronomy and physics at ASU. What is important to me is that we have a positive impact on them. We want them to have a good attitude about learning science.”
It got a bit easier to provide positive experiences for all Planetarium audiences in 2010 when the facility celebrated its 25th anniversary with a complete renovation that includes new projection and sound systems, new seating, a new library of astronomy shows and a new name – the Global Immersion Center (GIC). The GIC not only provides enhanced experiences for the public, but also for ASU students and the faculty who teach them.
When Sonntag is not in class or the GIC, he enjoys his new hobby of playing golf and still likes to take out his own telescope and look at the night sky.
“I still have that amateur astronomer in me that enjoys just looking up at the stars,” he said.
Sonntag and his wife, Jean, have two kids, Ryan and Erika. Ryan is a geology graduate of Texas Tech and Utah State, and works for Chesapeake Energy. Erika is a graduate of New Mexico State and teaches kindergarten on a Yakima Indian reservation in Washington. Jean is the librarian at San Angelo’s Glenn Middle School.