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The Express

The Student News Site of Sacramento City College

The Express

The Student News Site of Sacramento City College

The Express

Mike Richardson: Star Professor

Michael Richardson, teacher of astronomy and physics for 34 years at City College, in the portable building used as the physics lab until the completion of Mohr Hall Thursday, March 5, 2020. (Arturo Gomez/[email protected])

Chain-link fence panels prevent pedestrians from entering the construction site on the corner of Freeport Boulevard and Sutterville Road. Beyond the fence, vibrant young weeds have begun to sprout between clumps of flax-colored dirt. Before the end of 2020, this gradually developing work site will be transformed into the new Mohr Hall, which is welcome news to the people who will occupy the building.

“We’ve been in these temporary buildings for three years now,” said Michael Richardson, chair of the astronomy, physics and geology department. With an air of relief, Richardson continued, “We’ll be moving into the new building this fall!”

For 34 years, Richardson has taught astronomy and physics at City College, guiding students to turn their attention skyward. Though he admitted it was such a long time ago, Richardson spoke about all of the unique people he learned from as a student.

“I’ve had some professors that I really enjoyed that were bizarre characters. In the world of science, there is a huge variety of different personalities and all types of eccentricities,” said Richardson. “Every person you encounter in your growth process has something of value to you. It all depends on whether you focus on that or get distracted by their character traits.”

Richardson’s own time as a professor at City College began at a time when NASA was better funded to allow free access to educators. One such program allowed small groups of teachers to view images transmitted from the Voyager 2 mission as the craft traveled the outer regions of the solar system.

“When I first came [to City College], my mentor was Chris Hulbe,” said Richardson as he recalled a trip Hulbe facilitated through the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s collaboration with the California Technical Institute. Many of the assets and programs in the department today are a result of Hulbe’s efforts, including the observatory on campus unofficially named after him.

“We were sitting in the CalTech auditorium when Voyager flew by the moon Triton,” he remembered, noting that this was the very first image of this satellite of Neptune. “It turned out to be a fantastic experience,” Richardson said, adding that NASA no longer offers as much access to such services, and when it does, it’s costly.

Fellow astronomy and physics professor Doug Copely enthusiastically described his colleague. Copely has taught astronomy and physics at City College for over 20 years. Early in his career, Copely joined the astronomy department to attend viewings and lectures at the Jet Propulsion Lab.

“We’d always start a conversation about what’s out there,” said Copely. ”Mike’s got a great sense of curiosity and wonder. He’s never absent of that sort of enthusiasm. It makes it a joy to work with him.”

Looking back on his many experiences in the classroom, Richardson recalled one student who recently took two of Richardson’s astronomy classes, someone he recalls as a passionate, frantic social activist. 

“Most professors would be put off by this type of person,” Richardson continued. “They’re so full of angst about their previous experiences and concerns about global warming and other big, scary topics in modern times.”

But Richardson worked with other members in the department to formulate a response to the student. According to Richardson, over a period of time the guidance he and his colleagues provided gave this student a clearer perspective to process his ideas.

“[The student] found a place where he could express his needs in our department. As he was leaving class, he told me, ‘You’re the only real mentor I’ve ever had.’

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“The academic environment can really be something special for people with every kind of problem that you can imagine,” Richardson said.

Copely also recalled that student, recognizing a quality in his fellow professor that he says is rare.

“Mike’s somebody who sees the best in other people, even in times of frustration. He’s someone who affirms what he likes about ya. He wants to see the best in people.”

Richardson also a course he taught 15 years ago, when, on the first day of class, Richardson noticed a student who was rather unkempt. 

“Obviously a highly debilitated person,” said Richardson, adding that the student had had a noticeable number of setbacks in his life yet also had a passion to better himself through education. Other students seemed amused by the presence of their derelict classmate.

Richardson confronted the class, saying, “How many of you have the courage to have this impulse to do something you’ve never done before in an environment that’s totally intimidating and just go for it?”

Thinking back to his childhood, Richardson said he always found a fascination in science and math, even at a young age. 

“I could have taught a class in science fiction. I was always a futurist thinker,” he said.

His passion for the subject was fed by his thirst for science fiction stories. The questions asked by the science fiction authors Richardson admired inspired the changes and discoveries in science that Richardson would study throughout his college career. 

In 1969, Richardson obtained his Master of Arts in Physics from UC Davis. He then spent four years teaching math and physics to high school students and eventually to graduate students for a time. He came to City College in 1986, teaching the same ideas he was passionate about as a child.

New discoveries in the field of astrophysics happen with such frequency that Richardson’s interests are renewed regularly. 

“There hasn’t been much to contradict the idea that we’ve discovered all of the fundamental principles—until the latter part of the 20th century,” he said.

Richardson cited theories on dark matter and dark energy, which are being explored currently in scholarly science publications. 

“It’s a complete mystery,” Richardson said of those theories.  “We have experiences on the horizon that don’t match all of our knowledge, or even begin to. We have to evolve to understand this better.”

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    Linda davisMar 10, 2020 at 6:49 pm

    Wow!! I loved reading your interesting article! I felt you, as a writer, were truly enjoying your time with this humble and interesting man. Your interview makes me want to learn more of this wonderful human being.

  • AnonymousMar 10, 2020 at 9:38 am

    Fascinating read! Sounds like a wonderful man who has touch many students.