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Chris Clemens, Senior Associate Dean for Natural Sciences

February 6, 2018 | M. Clay

IAH Director Mark Katz interviews astrophysicist and College of Arts and Sciences Dean Chris Clemens about his research of the stars, as well as his self-identified conservatism on a college campus, where liberalism is the dominant language.  He discusses why different views on campus are fundamental to a higher educational experience, highlighting the UNC-Duke Philosophy, Politics, and Economics program, co-directed by Philosophy Professor and Associate Professors Program Director Geoff Sayre-McCord.




Philip Hollingsworth: Welcome to the Institute, a podcast on the lives and work of Fellows and Friends of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

I’m Philip Hollingsworth. In this episode, IAH Director Mark Katz speaks with Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy and Senior Associate Dean for Natural Sciences, Chris Clemens.

PH: In their conversation, Dr. Clemens talks about his research creating technologies to study white dwarves and his experience of being a politically conservative faculty member in a predominantly left leaning university population.

Mark Katz: Chris Clemens, welcome to the Institute podcast.

Chris Clemens: Thank you very much for having me.

MK: You’re an astrophysicist. You’re a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy here at UNC Chapel Hill. You’re a former chair of that department and you are the Senior Associate Dean for Natural Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences.

And you are a self-identified political conservative, so it’s the last of those identities that I want to talk with you about today.

MK: But I want to actually start with the first, which is your identity as a scientist. So can you tell us as a scientist, as an astrophysicist, what do you do?

CC: Most of my work in astrophysics nowadays is in two areas. I’m an equipment builder that is, I built a spectrograph that’s used on our four meter telescope in Chile. We continue to maintain that spectrograph and update it, and I work on a variety of other smaller instruments and instrument projects to build better ways to disperse light, essentially taking light apart into its component colors to see what the chemical elements are and the velocities of distant stars and galaxies are.

CC: My own scientific work is something called asteroseismology, which you can pick apart and understand is to look into the interiors of stars by looking at their resonant mechanical properties and that would be impossible if you had to go and ring a star, but they ring by themselves sometimes and so we use the oscillations that we can measure to probe the interior density structure.

MK: So you talked about oscillations and I have to say I’ve been a professor of music and I… when I hear oscillations, I often think of music. So is there music of the spheres?

CC: There is. The oscillations we see have overtones just like you would have on the string of an instrument. Some of them oscillations in the stars I study which are white dwarf stars are gravity wave modes and unlike a string that you pluck the restoring force is not pressure, it’s buoyancy, the same thing that makes a cork bob up and down. And they have a very strange dispersion relationship. So if you could hear the music, it might not sound like music you’re used to.

MK: I would be very interested to hear that kind of music. I take it, this is something you’re very passionate about and you’ve been passionate about for a long time. Can you tell us? What drives you as a physicist? What are the questions that really spark your imagination?

CC: It is physics. Laboratory is only so good at measuring the properties of the material world. You cannot create every density, every temperature. Stars are interesting laboratories because in the core of a star, especially a dense star like a white dwarf, you will reach densities we have never reproduced in the lab. That means you’re in an unexplored domain as far as physicists are concerned. Our theory extends into that domain. We think it works, but the only test really is to have an observation.

These stars provide a laboratory for observations that you cannot make because you cannot recreate the material.

MK: Is a lot of this theoretical then?

CC: It’s a combined… Combination. I don’t actually do the theoretical part. But for instance to predict what might be the oscillation modes of a star requires a very detailed theoretical model. In that model are some simple physics, gravity, buoyancy, as I was talking about; hydrostatic equilibrium is the is the main equation. We think those are well known. But then there are other physics things like the equation of state. What is the pressure of a gas at a given density and temperature? Those are calculated. When you when you leave the realm in which we’ve measured them, it’s entirely theory.

CC: If that theory is wrong, the stars oscillations won’t match the theoretical model, and putting that together can lead you in interesting directions.

MK: I see. So as someone who builds equipment and designs equipment, you have to work very closely with theorists and vice versa.

CC: That’s right, so it’s it’s all. It’s like anything, all the pieces have to be there. You need an instrument you understand, that’s not delivering artifacts, but real measurement. You need theory to compare in the domains where you don’t have measurements, the measurements too. And then you need very good measurements both in known and unknown domains.

CC: It’s interesting because people think of it as an experimental science, but it’s not in the normal sense of the word in experimental science.

CC: In astronomy, there’s no control. You’re not controlling the experiment in your lab in any way, so we cannot, for instance, arrange the experiment to happen. We have to wait and watch and hope that nature does something interesting. And recently my research has veered into a new area because nature does some very interesting things when the sun becomes a white dwarf. The planets will be in new orbits because the sun will lose part of its mass.

CC: This will cause a new epic of scattering asteroids, comets and those will fall down at the, what used to be the sun, but it will only be the size of the earth. So they won’t hit it, but they may be crushed in the gravity and eaten. And this is happening around other white dwarf stars.

CC: We see planet rubble falling onto the stars and why that’s interesting is we can measure the composition of the planets that used to be there, and so exoplanetary abundances of elements is something I never thought in my lifetime we would measure because you imagine going to the exoplanet, digging it up and putting it in a mass spectrometer. But the spectrograph I built — not intending it for this use — is actually measuring the lines absorbed by metals that are falling onto white dwarf stars from crushed up planetary rubble.

MK: That’s fascinating, so you essentially helped create a new field within astrophysics.

CC: Well, I didn’t. Other people had noticed this — we had a good tool for it. So we joined them in their efforts. So there are about 20 measurements of exoplanetary rubble composition, and the answer is, most of these things have the same composition as the earth in bulk. If you just stirred the earth up and dropped it on the sun. You would see the same kind of elements.

MK: There are a lot of interesting ramifications for that that research that I’d love to talk with you about, but I do want to pivot talking about politics and political identity.

MK: How do you define for yourself conservativism? You identify in that way. So what does what does that mean for you?

CC: I think that’s an interesting question, because when you hear on a college campus, someone is conservative, because most people are not. They have maybe a cartoon view of conservatives. There is but one kind and it’s the kind that we imagine in our heads. Someone whose pickup truck is bristling with armaments and maybe has a mildly offensive bumper sticker on it and that’s just a cartoon, right?

CC: So it is a good question. I think my conservatism came about both from where I was raised, but also just from reading. Our educational system in Mississippi, where I was brought up, was a little bit behind the times in as much our government class still emphasized the reading and memorization of the Constitution and Bill of Rights and so forth. And I think, to read those documents freshly as a 10th or 11th grader, is to re calibrate your political beliefs. If you buy into the arguments about government that are in the founding documents of this nation. What you see is a distrust of power collected together in a government that that can enforce laws and/or confiscate money and or do the things that governments do.

CC: So, it pushes you in a rather libertarian or conservative direction. And so I define conservativism as distinct from libertarian, as sort of suspicious of the role of government. Not exclusively believing government is bad or that it shouldn’t do things, but always asking people to make the case. So my default position, if someone says the government ought to be doing more is to ask the question, what is it doing already? Is it effective? And is it the most effective way or could some other way be found, or collective action without government intervention could solve the problem?

What that normally does is drive the question closer and closer to the problem. The solution may live much closer than Washington. So a localism is a kind of conservatism. I think that’s not only a conservative position. You can see a very progressive movement toward localism, but I think this idea that the people nearest the problem know the most about it and the smallest structure that works to solve the problem is the one you want to have. That’s how I would articulate a conservative position.

MK: So you were talking in the examples that you cited about federal or state or local government. What about on the university campus? How does your conservativism reflect or affect the way you operate as a professor, as a chair, as a dean now?

CC: Well, I think. It reminds me that we are not entitled to the almost $500 million that are that comes from the taxpayers and is sent to this campus every year. That is, we need continually to be justifying why that amount of money is necessary to do what we do, how we’re spending it wisely, how it is serving the objectives of the people who gave it to us.

CC: We hear a lot of complaints about anti-intellectualism in the legislature when we hear that funding is not increasing. It hasn’t really gone down recently, but it hasn’t gone up either and that is a kind of erosion.

CC: Well, I don’t see that as an anti intellectualism necessarily. What are we doing with the money? Are we spending it efficiently? Would the people of North Carolina give it voluntarily or does it have to be confiscated in order for it to be used to the mutual benefit through this educational institution?

CC: If we can’t think and respond intelligently in those ways, then I think we’re doing everyone a disservice. So that’s how my conservatism is one that says: I know where that money came from. It was taken from people, they didn’t give it over voluntarily. No one hires their tax accountant to increase their taxes. No one fills out their forms at home in such a way as to give more than necessary to the government. This is evidence that we don’t want to be giving it — it’s being extracted.

CC: Is it being extracted and used well? We need to explain why that’s true. So that may not be a conservative position, but it derives from this idea that people own the things that they’ve earned, and that when the government goes and takes them and says we’re going to do a good, the good may not be self-explanatory. It needs to explain itself.

MK: So you have not hidden your identity as a conservative. It’s something that you’ve mentioned to me before voluntarily, but I understand there are other colleagues of ours on campus who don’t feel comfortable doing that. Do you talk to people in that position?

MK: Do they… what do they say about their decision not to disclose their political leanings?

CC: Right. Let me talk about my own position first. Even when I arrived here and did not have tenure, I decided I needed to live who I was at all times. I don’t like the idea that I’m one person in one place and another in another place. And of course you can do that simply by remaining silent and let everyone presume, but is a very presumptive place. If you get a collection of typical faculty together and they begin to discuss politics, there is an assumption that everyone in the room agrees with the default progressive liberal university faculty position.

CC: You know, you can almost write down what that is. You can meet someone and ask one question and almost know their entire political belief. So you know I don’t want to over generalize, but I think there is a common wisdom, if you like, on politics. If you just let everyone presume that you agree, you’re setting up a not very good situation when they may find out that you don’t agree or you’re giving tacit approval to something that you find either wrong, incorrect or maybe even abhorrent because I think there are positions in the sort of the common political liberal viewpoint that I find not only questionable politically, but morally and ethically, and I feel it’s a kind of moral compromise not to speak up — obviously you speak up in a way that’s polite.

CC: So I just made the decision to speak out. I’m lucky to live in a place, in a department and in a field where it almost doesn’t matter. We’re not working on these questions, so there’s not a lot of professional risk in doing that. The faculty that I’ve talked to who remain in deep cover as conservatives and even as registered Republicans in some cases are in departments where they feel that if they revealed that it would not be good for them, that it might have some consequence that they can’t anticipate. Whether that’s true or not, I can’t comment, but they at least believe that. And I can tell you the ones who are the most insecure about revealing that, are women faculty.

CC: We know that in academia there are challenges that women face. It was a male dominated and is in many places still a male dominated business for a long time. And the challenges that go with being woman faculty, I think, are compounded if you are conservative woman faculty. And so I think they don’t speak.

MK: So I was imagining that people who might not share their political identities with their colleagues, knowing you might seek some advice. Has that happened?

CC: It has happened because I am out as a conservative that people have come to me and expressed a solidarity about that, but not very often. Recently I took it upon myself to try to identify some more conservatives for reasons I could explain, and I found a surprising reluctance for any kind of fellowship to form around that. There’s still this timidity about being openly conservative on a college campus.

MK: So there’s been some discussion about the possibility of creating a conservative center or program or initiative at UNC. Like what’s been happening at other campuses around the country, for example, there’s the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton. So I understand you actually visited Princeton to see and learn something about that center. So I’m curious, what do you think the value of these programs is and whether you think this is something that UNC should be investigating?

CC: Well, I think the value of the programs that exist are they bring this viewpoint much closer to people who don’t share it, and they give students an opportunity to maybe to hear more than one side of something. There is a degree to which we fail in our education of progressive or liberal students by not challenging their viewpoints as much as we would say, a conservative student. I think it sharpens students to have to defend themselves, defend their position. And maybe it changes their positions.

CC: So a value of having an institute, and I did go to Princeton and this is a point that Robby George, who we met with made very clearly. The people who come to the events at the James Madison Program are not people who necessarily agree with the positions that are being presented. They’re coming because they haven’t found those positions articulated well on campus, and they want to understand whether they are correct, whether they should be confronting their own beliefs and to have a discussion, a more lively discussion than you can have with someone who agrees with everything that that you think. So I think they do bring a value.

CC: That being said, I would want to know what is the intellectual center of what we’re contemplating here. I don’t think at a state university we should be trying to establish something based on its politics. It would be based on an intellectual interest and then attempt to get people whose viewpoints are different than the ones we have now around whatever subject that is.

MK: So are there ways that we can accomplish that, short of forming a center here?

CC: I think we’re accomplishing it already. You may be aware, I’m sure you’re aware of our PPE program. Philosophy, politics and economics. This is a program that looks at many of the same issues, some of the other centers you were discussing look at. They ask what is the role of free markets? Is capitalism always bad? Can capitalism be a force for good? Is capitalism and markets really only about game theory? Is it about a way to solve problems with collective wisdom?

CC: These are interesting questions. They should not be off limits. And on this campus, they’re not. We have an entire program and a very good anthology produced authored by Geoff Sayre-McCord. That does bring political questions into the fore, that are that are not always from the standard liberal progressive perspective.

MK: So I wonder if there are particular risks in some of these programs that are popping up around the university. One thing that strikes me in particular is when I read an article about the James Madison Program that its website says its mission is ‘to explore enduring questions of American constitutional law and Western political thought.’ So the first part of that, of course seems innocuous to me, but sometimes what I’ve seen is a kind of marrying of conservative ideals with so-called Western thought.

MK: And there’s been pushback towards that because sometimes when people say Western thought or Western civilization, Western ideals, it tends to stand in for a fairly narrow view — in other words, white male civilization or Eurocentric civilization. So I’m just wondering if you see that as a risk or have seen that as part of a problem that should be recognized or addressed?

CC: Yeah, I think. I’d like to this… I would distinguish at this point between Western civilization as intellectual area and Western civilization as a brand. I think what you’re saying is often people will say Western civilization as a way of identifying a core set of beliefs that that may or may not embrace the east, for instance, or as you say, is rooted in a kind of patriarchal view of things.

CC: I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about, and even if we had something that was called Western Studies or Western civilization, it would not be about that. Western civilization is very, very interesting and deep as a subject. I was just in fact looking at some things about astronomy and how astronomy got kicked off before Copernicus. And as everyone knows you know astronomy, the ability to actually calculate locations of planets which the Greeks could do, which Ptolemy had conquered and written down in the Almagest only came to us through our interaction with Islam and with Arabic philosophers and scientists.

CC: But we sometimes forget the degree to which their mathematics, which was able to improve upon Greek mathematics, came from Hindu influence, because they lived between the east and the eest, the Far East and the West. And so in Western civilization if you’re studying something as it sounds as western as Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, the roots of that are actually connected to the east and to Arabic culture and history. And I think that’s fascinating.

CC: The university as we live in it and know it is a Western creation. If you’re studying the university you’re studying the West. If you’re living in the university and its ideals, those ideals are Western ideals. Our belief in academic freedom, our issuing of theocracies is a western principle. Our liberalism around personal freedom. These are all sort of Western ideas influenced, of course over time by interactions with the rest of the world. So to say somehow that studying the West is narrow? No. It can be a brand that is attracting people who see it in a narrow and prescriptive way. And so I think there is a danger of that.

CC: But I think we should be talking more about Western studies than we do. Not the exclusive kind of Western studies, but to know deeply about ourselves is the most important thing. Because we really can’t even criticize… We can’t continue to be critical of our own culture if we don’t understand what its basic principles are. And God forbid, if we should abandon the basic western principles in our criticism and kind of throw out the baby with the bathwater, then I don’t know what the university would look like. Academic freedom itself would be in peril.

CC: So I’m very much in favor of us as a group, as a faculty embracing some intellectual areas and inviting people who don’t agree with us to come, be on our faculty and discuss these interesting areas. And I think many of these interesting areas are Western.

MK: Chris Clemens, thank you very much for a fascinating conversation. Thank you for coming to see us  at the Institute.

CC: Thank you very much.

PH: Check back at for the latest news on our Fellows and upcoming events at Hyde Hall. You can find all our episodes of the podcast on our website as well as iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at IAH_UNC.


CC: And I was in was in the library as an undergraduate. There was this old library I really loved to go in there and just wander in the stacks and I and I flipped out a book that looked really old and it wasn’t very interesting book, so I said I’m not going to check that out, but I started thinking how busy you are in college. And then I looked at this shelf and I said well, how many books can I read possibly and still not fail out of school? Probably no more than one a month, and how old am I going to live to be? Probably 80, let’s say, and I’m 20, so that’s 60 times 12. That’s not very many books, and so I said, I’m going to count the books on this one shelf in this huge library and it was about the number I would read in my life if I read a book a month. And it was after that that I changed the way I read.

CC: I would read about half a chapter, and if it wasn’t good if it didn’t seem like it was going to be significant, discard. Go to the next because–

MK: Life is too short for bad books.

CC: Life is too short for bad books.



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