What if the Moon Didn't Exist?
Order What if the Earth Had Two Moons
Barnes and Nobles
Order What if the Earth Had Two Moons
Barnes and Nobles
Order Heavenly Errors from Columbia University Press
Columbia University Press
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Neil Comins was born in New York City in 1951. He was the first of three children. His family lived in several towns throughout New York and New England. From an early age, he was fascinated by gravity and the nature of matter. In 1965, while in high school in Ardsley, New York, he developed the idea that different fundamental particles were just different vibrations of very thin strings.
At seventeen, he enrolled at Cornell in electrical engineering. Quickly tired of having teachers justify equations by saying, "scientists have shown that...", he transferred to the engineering physics program in order to learn the derivations of those equations. In 1969, still interested in the concept of particle strings, he presented the idea to his sophomore physics professor, who assured him that the notion (now superstring theory) was not worth pursuing. He moved on to other interests. Finishing the required courses in three years, his fourth year was filled with graduate courses, including notable ones taught by Hans Bethe and Michael Fischer.
After graduation, Comins earned a masters degree in physics at the University of Maryland, assisting in experiments associated with Einstein's general relativity.
In the mid-1970s, he was privileged to be accepted as Bernard Schutz's first graduate student studying general relativity at what was then University College, Cardiff, Wales (now Cardiff University). During those years, which were a golden era of GR research, he presented some of his work to Stephen Hawking's group at Cambridge; attended memorable conferences on GR at Gregynog in central Wales and at an Ettore Majorana conference in Erice, Sicily; and he visited Roger Penrose's group at Oxford.
Skillfully guided by Schutz, Comins did work on the properties of neutron stars, some of which was cited in Subramanyan Chandrasekhar's Nobel prize lecture (see link below).
Comins has been on the faculty of the University of Maine since 1978. He has several areas of astronomical research:
- Observational astronomy using optical telescopes in Arizona and the VLA radio telescope in New Mexico
- Computer models of galaxies like our Milky Way
- General relativity
- Astronomy education
During four summers in the 1980s, Comins worked at the NASA Ames research center at Moffett Field, CA, doing computer models of galaxies with Bruce F. Smith. All of Comins's research has led to the publication of several dozen papers.
His writing career began around 1980 when he wrote questions in science for a prominent testing service. This continued for several years and scores of questions. Then he wrote over a dozen articles for "Astronomy" magazine.
In 1990, when his older son, James, was five, Comins was inundated with "What if?" questions, which he did his best to answer. One day during this time, colleague David Batuski wandered into his office and announced that scientists look at the world "to much the same way." Intrigued, Comins proposed that he and Dave try looking at it differently. It wasn't easy. However, his son's "What if?" questions percolated into his consciousness and he asked one of his own, namely, "Well, what if the Moon didn't exist?" Moments later, a student came by to see Batuski, but the question wouldn't go away. By the end of the day, Comins had worked out the concepts presented in the title chapter of his first book.
In 1995, author and astronomer William J. Kaufmann, III, died and Comins took over writing his textbook "Discovering the Universe." Comins's first edition was wildly successful, leading to several more editions and a smaller version, "Discovering the Essential Universe".
Based on his teaching throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Comins became acutely aware that the hundreds of thousands of students taking astronomy courses around the world have many preconceived notions about nature that are incorrect, making it difficult for them to understand and believe the correct science. He set about identifying the misconceptions, learning where they came from, finding ways to undo them, and sharing that knowledge. This led to his book "Heavenly Errors" and a web site that lists over 1700 of these incorrect beliefs (see link below).
"What if the Moon Didn't Exist?" came out in Japanese in 1999. Shortly afterward, he was contacted by Kiyoshi Kodama, in Hollywood, on behalf of Shuji Abe, owner of Robot Communications, Inc. of Tokyo. Mr. Abe had read the book and wanted to pitch it as the theme for Mitsubishi's pavilion at the World Expo, Aishi, 2005. The effort was successful (see link below). In 2006, the show was modified for use at the "Huis Ten Bosch" resort in southern Japan.
"The Hazards of Space Travel" evolved from an idea of friend and former editor Cliff Mills. Mills wanted a book on natural disasters in space. Comins transformed the idea to disasters befalling humans in space and Mills bought the book. When Mills retired before the book was completed, Comins purchased it back from the publisher and with the aid of his new agent, Loretta Barrett, sold it to Nancy Miller at Random House. The book appeared in 2007.
Comins lives with his family in Bangor, Maine, which is a very nice place to raise children.