Astronomer, college professor and superhuman

By Nicole Gleason/Arizona Sonora News

A lot of astronomers start out as stargazing children whose curiosity for the cosmos is fueled by a key experience. For Carl Sagan, it was the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where he saw a flashlight shining on a photoelectric cell. For Neil deGrasse Tyson, it happened after he visited the Space Theater at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City at the age of 9.

For Dennis Just, the astronomy department head and faculty instructor at Pima Community College, it was the time he spent in the Poconos Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania as a child that propelled his interest in astronomy. It all occurred after he witnessed the first—and last—meteor shower he has ever seen.

“I just remember that was the most amazing thing I had ever seen, because it was pitch black, you could see the Milky Way, and it was meteors coming left and right,” Just recalls.

Just had been in the company of his uncle and a cousin. His uncle owned a timeshare in the Split Rock Resort.

Just is a native of Parsippany, New Jersey, a place known for its lush green landscapes, its low crime rate and some of the best public schools in the nation.

Still, Just prefers the small-town feel of Tucson but is grateful for having been raised back on the East Coast. “I’m happy I grew up there. I’m happy I got four seasons. I don’t think I would not have liked living somewhere where I couldn’t play in the snow every year as a kid,” Just says.

Just is 6 feet tall, brown-eyed with bookish glasses and jet black hair combed to the side. His dress is business casual and he likes wearing a constellation-themed tie (although he is unsure which constellation it depicts)—a gift given to him by his partner of three years, Kyra Harris.

When it comes to Tucson, Just enjoys its laid-back, unpretentious culture, its proximity to Mexico and the natural beauty that abounds. “The Appalachian Mountains in the Northeast are absolutely nothing like the mountains out here … Instead of squirrels and chipmunks, I get to see lizards,” Just muses.

Although the experience in the Poconos Mountains left an impression on Just, he didn’t intend on becoming an astronomer until he was already in college at Penn State. That happened during the height of the university’s child sex abuse scandal controversy, in which assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was accused, and later indicted.

Just initially enrolled as a business major, figuring he would follow in his father’s footsteps. Over time, it became clear that he was beginning to love all of his astronomy general education courses (and increasingly disliking the required business courses). “So eventually I hated business enough and liked astronomy enough to make the switch, and I’ve never regretted it since,” Just says.

This switch made Just enter a relatively small field, as there are only about 6,000 practicing astronomers in North America, according to the American Astronomical Society.

After graduation, Just enrolled in a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto in Canada. It is almost protocol for astronomers to do three-to-five years in a postdoctoral position that involves research work before they can begin teaching. After that, Just moved to Tucson in October 2015.

Once there he met his partner, Harris, who creates African-American studies curricula for the Tucson Unified School District. Between the two of them, the couple shares five cats. Just came into the relationship with two cats; Harris already had three. “I can at least say she contributed the majority of them,” Just jokes.

While Harris does not work in a field associated with studying the cosmos, Just’s love of astronomy has played into their relationship. “When we first met, a lot of our love was shown through viewing the stars. On a short vacation to Sedona we looked at the moon through a mini-telescope, or we would drive out to Lot G6 past Gates Pass, and together we saw Uranus for the first time,” Harris says.

Harris also appreciates that Just has patience when it comes to explaining things that she does not have a background in. “Dennis has such an amazing appreciation of our universe, galaxy and solar system, and I appreciate so much that he has the patience to share it with me in my layman’s understanding of the science,” Harris says.

Just was offered a position at Pima Community College shortly after moving to Tucson, where he has now been teaching astronomy and physics for four years. He also co-hosts the podcast ‘orbitalpodcast and still participates in research projects and publications.

He has an appreciation and fondness for his community college students in particular. “Community college students are phenomenal students. There is not one iota of entitlement that I ever get from a community college student. The only quality a student could have that is a real problem for me is entitlement, when they act like I owe them a grade,” Just says.

There are a couple of misconceptions about astronomers that Just insists on clarifying. “A joke is that Pluto is not a planet,” Just says about the dwarf planet that has garnered a cult following since being ousted as an official planet. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not spectacular and amazing.” On that note, he does wish more people would recognize that there is value in the pursuit of learning about the world—and the cosmos.

Sitting in his empty classroom at the end of a day of teaching, Just finds it imperative to talk about the many misconceptions there are about astronomy. For example, federal funding for space exploration, as it pertains to NASA.

“People think NASA’s budget is a lot bigger,” he says. “If you poll what people suspect NASA’s budget is, they’ll say 10 to 20 percent of the federal budget, but in reality it’s a fraction of a percent.”

He doesn’t like it when he hears complaints about how we should be spending that money somewhere else or why we should bother. “Well, the point is for the sake of knowledge itself, and if you don’t think that’s valuable at all, then I mean surely it should be worth some fraction of a percent of the budget of a nation that wants to consider itself a contributor to the knowledge of humankind,” he says.

The last misconception that strikes Just as particularly unnecessary is the stereotype of the crazed, mad scientist bent on destroying the world. “It’s just inaccurate. Most scientists aren’t mad scientists. Most scientists are just people. We don’t fit any particular mold,” Just says.

Just also believes that there are now more female scientists and astronomers, an advancement for women everywhere. “If you took a classroom of children (five years ago) and said, ‘Everyone draw a picture of a scientist,’ they would draw men, but half of scientists are women … We are not all old white men with wiry hair,” Just says.

Although he does not like the stereotype of the mad scientist, he understands where it comes from. “It is easy to find yourself in a bubble, and if you are in a bubble where you’re surrounded by other technical-minded scientists, you can fall prey to becoming terrible at explaining things to the general public,” he admits. The only way to solve this, according to Just, is ‘science communication’—in other words, the ability for scientists to effectively communicate their work to the public.

Examples of scientists who have mastered public communication include deGrasse Tyson, Sagan and Bill Nye. But his favorite astronomer is Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an astrophysicist from Northern Ireland who co-discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967. Radio pulsars are highly magnetized, rapidly rotating neutron stars that emit radiation that produces pulsed emission. In 1974, that achievement garnered a Nobel Prize, although Burnell was not a recipient of the award.

“Even though she discovered them, the Nobel Prize went to her adviser and another person. They could have split it three ways, but they decided to just kind of snub her,” Just says.

Just admires Burnell’s selflessness: at one point in her career, Burnell won a million-dollar prize for her work in physics and chose not to keep the money. “She just donated all of that money to a scholarship, a foundation to promote (minority) women who want to be physicists,” Just says.

Just also has a special talent, or superhuman ability. He can spot differences in two separate images in a matter of seconds because he can split his vision between two photos simultaneously, allowing him to notice discrepancies right away. This is sometimes known as eye-crossing. “After trying to teach my friends how to do it, I think it’s something like being double-jointed, or (being able to) stick your tongue out and touch your nose, like a random little genetic quirk,” Just says.

He was able to use this skill to excel in Photo Hunt, a coin-operated touch screen game found in bars and arcades. After a friend wrote about Just’s ability in the Arizona Daily Star, the CEO of the game company contacted Just via email and eventually put him in contact with a casting agent from Fox’s Superhuman, a show hosted by actor Kal Penn about regular people with remarkable abilities in areas such as memory, hearing, sight and taste.

In 2017, Just was flown to Hollywood, where filming took about a week. To his surprise, he won, although he couldn’t share that information for a year because the episode had yet to be aired. The prize was $50,000. “I blew a lot of it on an expensive trip to Japan and an expensive week in Vegas, and the rest of it went to basically paying off debts and to a retirement fund,” he says.

Just has only ever met one other person with his ability, and it happened to be in Tucson. Just had been drinking with his brother and a few other friends at Frog & Firkin. They had been playing the arcade games when his brother overheard someone claiming their brother was the best at winning these games. His friends paired up the two men, challenging them to compete. Just won.

When he’s not teaching or showcasing his superhuman ability on national television, he enjoys spending time with Harris and their cats. The couple is also into video games. “I just got Borderlands 3 for me and my partner,” Just says. They have two televisions in their living room, two PlayStations and two recliners.

As for movies, Just cites “Donnie Darko” and “Requiem for a Dream” as favorites. He is also a big fan of horror films, namely low-brow, straight-to-DVD lost-footage horror films. Just claims this fixation probably stems from his love of spooky things as a child.

He grew up exploring the State Asylum for the Insane in Morristown, New Jersey, a then-abandoned psychiatric hospital that has since been renamed. Just remembers the hallways being completely empty, with confidential patient files scattered all along the floors. He also played in the tunnels surrounding the property. “It was really old, really creepy but so much fun,” Just remembers.

In his class curricula, Just sometimes assigns students to read Carl Sagan’s articles, namely “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.” Sagan was not only known for being an excellent astronomer and writer, but he was also extremely spiritual and profound in his contemplation about the meaning of the cosmos.

While Just would not call himself spiritual (maybe the word is associated too much with sage-burning, superstitious hippies), his study of the cosmos has given him some insight when it comes to matters of spirituality and the meaning of life.

“I have ideas about the nature of reality, but I definitely went through a phase where I was a smug little hater of people who had their own beliefs, but that was stupid. I don’t know everything,” he says.

Some nights, while looking through his telescope, Just does experience what he calls the ‘numinous feeling.’ “I do get this special feeling when I am at a telescope in the middle of the night and it is as dark as it’s ever going to get, and you just see the stars in the sky and you feel this connection and everything is wonderful and great,” he says.

Just believes that science and religion can be compatible, and one does not necessarily disavow the other.

“It’s not like science disproves religion. They are different domains. Someone’s morals are absolutely decoupled from what science says, but there can be talk between them. People do find meaning in the science that speaks to them,” he says.

Although Just loves Tucson, he does not plan on spending the rest of his life there. “I am not going to die here,” he says. As for a legacy to leave behind, Just only wants to be remembered as a good teacher, he says, someone who “taught people, (who hopefully) learned something and enjoyed it at the same time.”

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