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Retiring NMSU Astronomy professor wins prestigious science writing award

On the cusp of his retirement, Bernie McNamara, astronomy professor at New Mexico State University for 40 years, has won the top prize in this year’s Joan and Arnold Seidel Griffith Observer Science Writing Contest. It is the oldest and most prestigious writing contest in astronomy.

Man standing in an observatory wearing a leather jacket
Retiring NMSU astronomy professor Bernie McNamara has won a prestigious science writing award. His article will be published in the Griffith Observer in August. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)
People sitting at a desk in a room
Photo used with Bernie McNamara’s article to be published in the Griffith Observer. Department of Immigration hearing to determine whether Hsue-shen Tsien, Caltech scientist, should be deported as an alien belonging to the Communist Party. Left to right are Grant B. Cooper, Tsien’s attorney, Tsien, a hearing reporter, Albert Del Guercio, examining officer, and Ray Waddell, hearing officer. Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, UCLA Library.

McNamara won first prize in the contest, which comes with a $1,000 award. His article, “Tsien Hsue-shen and China’s First Satellite: A Collision between Politics and Technology,” will be published in the Griffith Observer in August. The contest is open to scientists, writers and members of the public to encourage writing about astronomy, astrophysics, and space science for the average reader.

As a longtime professor in the College of Arts and Sciences who once shared an office with Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, McNamara has numerous scholarly publications to his credit. However, the Griffith Observer contest is about writing for a broader audience. His winning article is focused on Tsien Hsue-shen, the man who spearheaded China’s first satellite launch, who left the U.S. under threat of deportation because of his alleged Communist associations.

McNamara explained this story gives greater historic context to the event and reflects an expanded worldview of astronomy. It is part of a class McNamara has taught for 15 years called “Into the Final Frontier,” for which he wrote the textbook and accompanying workbooks.

“Progress in science and technology does not occur in an isolated environment. It is influenced by national and international political considerations,” he said. “The story of Tsien demonstrates the importance of these factors on the development of the modern Chinese space program.”

McNamara has written academic papers on his research involving short period variable stars, such as LMXBs, Algols, and Delta Scuti stars, and he has coordinated worldwide networks of variable star observers. Writing for the Observer contest required a different approach.

“NMSU encourages its faculty to participate in a Writing Across the Curriculum course developed by Dr. Chris Burnham of the English Department,” said McNamara. “This course allowed me to acquire the skills needed to clearly present this type of information to the general public.”

After teaching thousands of undergraduate and graduate students since 1975, he can look back on many memorable experiences.

“Although it is certainly true that science and technology have made great advances over the past 40 years, the external influences that determine the rate at which this progress is made remain the same,” he said.

NMSU’s astronomy department will be hosting a retirement reception for McNamara this week. He plans to move to Tennessee at the end of the month when the spring semester ends.

“After many exciting years at NMSU I look forward to an enjoyable retirement in the beautiful setting of eastern Tennessee,” McNamara said. “However, I intend to follow the example of my former office-mate Clyde Tombaugh and remain helpful to NMSU whenever opportunities arise.”