As an associate professor in the Department of Earth Sciences and Science Education at SUNY Buffalo State, Kevin K. Williams is a geologist who studies the evolution of planets. But he really is a Mars junkie who looks at the red planet as an art form, a way to pique the interest of others.
Williams, born in Rehoboth, Mass., moved to Buffalo seven years ago from Washington, D.C., where he worked as a researcher at the Smithsonian Institution. Three years ago he was named director of the Whitworth-Ferguson Planetarium, which is now closed and scheduled to undergo extensive renovation as part of Buffalo State’s expanded Science and Mathematics Complex.
Williams, 42, is committed to bridging the gap between the local arts and science communities. He has collaborated with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in photo-illustrating a performance of “The Planets” by Gustav Holst. Williams also contributed to an exhibit running through Aug. 4 at the Burchfield Penney Art Center called “Oh My Heavens” in which he weighs in on the scientific accuracy of Charles Burchfield’s skyscapes.
People Talk: What have you discovered about the moon that surprised you?
Kevin Williams: There is water in the moon trapped between the rocks forming little bits of ice that together is the same amount of water we have in the Great Lakes. Think about people living on the moon one day. They will have a source of water.
PT: What makes you so sure people will be living on the moon?
KW: Why did people travel across the oceans to North America? It’s part of human nature. I don’t know that in 100 years there will be cities on the moon, but in 500 years there will be colonies.
PT: Are you a dreamer?
KW: Absolutely. I am an optimistic realist.
PT: Tell me about an Earth research project.
KW: Using ground-penetrating radar that bounces off of objects to tell you what is below the surface without digging. The bodies of ice below the surface are actually bigger than you think. That ties into the whole climate change issue of how fast the ice is melting. Using the same technology locally, I’ve worked with the college’s anthropology department to collect data on Old Fort Niagara which will eventually give us a three-dimensional view of what is below its surface.
PT: What makes you a good professor?
KW: I give students real-world experiences by tying them to my own, as in talking about my research in the Arctic and dealing with temperatures of negative 40. I also like getting students involved in research, working with me looking at Mars.
PT: What excites you about Mars?
KW: Sometime in the next 50 years there will be people walking on Mars, though the new rover on Mars that got there last August – Curiosity – is not looking for life. The two rovers before Curiosity were Spirit and Opportunity. They were supposed to last 90 days, and Opportunity is still working nine years later driving and taking pictures. The first rover was Pathfinder in the late ’90s. In the ’70s we had the two Viking orbiters.
PT: Can Earth be like Mars?
KW: Not exactly because the temperatures and pressures are different on Mars with very cold areas – like the dry valleys in Antarctica, probably one of the driest places on Earth. One of the places I have worked is on Devon Island in Antarctic. It’s part of Canada and it’s dry but it’s also very cold. There’s a big impact crater there from a meteorite.
PT: Why should I be concerned about Mars?
KW: Why be concerned about someplace that is 90 million miles away? Because it’s a target for imagination. Mars inspires people. You don’t have to be a scientist to appreciate it. You can like it for its artistic value. Even for a kid who is really into basketball. How high can he jump on Mars?
Mars is also an easy way to get connected because all of the data is available to the public. You go through NASA’s website and it’s all there. With some of the cameras you can look at images taken two days ago. You might be among the first 10 people to look at that picture in the world. It gives people an opportunity to be scientists on the side.
PT: Besides Mars, what’s your go-to planet?
KW: It would be one of the moons of Jupiter Europa because it’s all ice – not water or slush. It’s something I did research on as a graduate student figuring how thick the ice is. It’s only a couple of kilometers thick in most places, which is how thick the ice on Buffalo was when it was covered by glaciers.
PT: Tell me more about Buffalo’s Ice Age.
KW: It was 18,000 years ago, and almost all of New York State was covered. Only a little part of southwestern New York, the Allegany State Park area, wasn’t covered. Actually the ice went back and forth, carved out the Great Lakes, the Finger Lakes, and some of the valleys near Arcade and Holland. When the glaciers started melting, water filled in the Great Lakes and Finger Lakes and carved out the Mohawk Valley.
PT: What has been your golden moment in Buffalo?
KW: Within the last year getting tenure and getting promoted to associate professor.
PT: What gets people thinking about space?
KW: Something like the Apollo missions to the moon. With younger people it’s the rovers on Mars, built on Earth and sending people all this information from Mars, and we’re able to control it from here.
PT: How did you react to the final space shuttle?
KW: Disappointed because the justification used is they were old and prone to accidents. They had been rebuilt. They weren’t the original space shuttles. We were left without a way to launch our own rockets to get people into space.
PT: Where would you travel in space?
KW: Mars. The moon, too, but there’s so much that happened on Mars which makes it more interesting. When I was little, I wanted to be an astronaut, until maybe 10 years ago when it became realistic that I wasn’t going to be one.
PT: You are committed to space study.
KW: It makes you understand how small the Earth is – it’s a tiny speck – and we have to think about ways to protect the environment so we can enjoy the planet. That’s how I end classes, by showing a picture of Earth taken from beyond Pluto. There’s this great Native American proverb that says: “We don’t inherit the Earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.”