James Hedberg (SF00): Mapping the Stars

February 14, 2022 |  By Eve Tolpa

James Hedberg
James Hedberg (SF00) in the CCNY Planetarium

Shortly after joining the faculty of City College of New York (CCNY) in 2013, James Hedberg (SF00) discovered a campus basement housing a small planetarium that seated roughly 60 visitors. Built in the 1970s, it had been left untouched for years.

“The planetarium was mostly forgotten,” Hedberg says. With the support of the college, he took on its rehabilitation, securing grants for improvement. In 2018, he also became its director.

Although Hedberg had earned two advanced degrees in physics—an MS from Portland State and a PhD from McGill University—he says that “general familiarity with the night sky was something I didn’t have a lot of.”

So he embarked on a project that would, among other things, remedy that. The free, open-source software the planetarium had been using didn’t have images of constellations. Because “everyone wants to see constellations in a planetarium,” Hedberg set out to draw and map all 88 of them himself.

In addition to solving a technical problem, the project “gave me a good opportunity to make myself learn about the whole 360 degrees,” while practicing drawing, a skill he fondly remembers honing when it was still offered as part of the St. John’s arts practicum.

To decide which images to render, he considered a range of options. In some cases he went the more traditional route: his Andromeda, for example, is fashioned after the 17th-century sculpture by Domenico Guidi, housed at the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Hedberg took a field trip to research historical models for Hercules, Virgo, and more.

He also made some less conventional choices. A love for Melville’s Moby-Dick inspired him to depict Cetus, the sea monster, as a whale. And a graphic of Euclid I.47—familiar to any Johnnie who completed freshman math—represents the constellation Triangulum.

Hedberg contributed the resulting drawings for use in the planetarium software, which is called OpenSpace and maintained by some of his colleagues.

Hedberg’s illustration of a Zodiac range with Sagittarius and Scorpius

“But,” he continues, “it gets a little more interesting. I ended up selling a version of that art.” This version, a second iteration of the constellation drawings, will be featured in the National Geographic Stargazer’s Atlas, to be published in fall 2022.

Running a planetarium during a global pandemic has been more or less a nonstarter. Since March 2020, Hedberg says, “we haven’t had a single person in there.” Instead he’s been posting a lot of material at the CCNY Planetarium’s Instagram account. “Hopefully this spring we’ll be able to start opening up again.”

In the meantime, Hedberg has been focusing on his primary job, teaching. As a lecturer in the physics department, he finds himself continually influenced by his liberal arts education. “I think about it every time I walk into the classroom,” he says. “How am I going to uphold the traditions I loved at St. John’s? It’s hard.”

“Partly it’s hard because discussion-based learning is not an obvious approach in science, and partly it’s hard because the students who come to CCNY didn’t explicitly sign up for such an approach, like Johnnies do. To get up and talk for an hour and half is the easy way out.”

To periodically break that pattern, he says, “we have debate day, where I pose a question and get them to argue about it.”

Hedberg is part of the faculty group that determines which courses students must take in order to meet their degree requirements. In this context, too, St. John’s is never far from his mind, because he knows firsthand the value in studying subjects whose relevance might not be immediately apparent.

“Half the stuff I do now I wouldn’t have gotten exposed to if it hadn’t been for the St. John’s [Program],” Hedberg says. One fruitful case in point: as a direct result of sophomore music class, he learned to play piano, a pastime he still enjoys.

Amazingly, part of that “half” also contained the seeds of his professional path. The high school-age Hedberg wasn’t particularly interested in STEM subjects and never imagined he’d pursue physics as a career.

“If it weren’t for the requirements of the St. John’s curriculum,” he says, “I wouldn’t have picked math in my freshman year.”