Her life might be summed up by Albert Einstein’s famous equation: E = mc2. After all, Professor Lynn Cominsky often comes across as a marvel of pure energy. At times, she seems to move with the speed of light, even when she’s sitting still.
She also has made the study, teaching and popularization of physics — Einstein’s domain — her life’s passion.
“I work all the time,” she says, “though I don’t keep to a tight schedule.”
Sonoma State University students and faculty members say that’s all true and that she’s an inspired and inspiring mentor and teacher. Through her NASA-funded Astrophysics Educator Ambassador program, she and her cohorts have trained a core of master teachers who, in turn, have trained more than 65,000 teachers nationwide. Her students and the students of her students are almost everywhere.
As though to prove her devotion to her chosen discipline, Cominsky keeps an Albert Einstein stuffed doll in her office on the campus where, for the past 30 years, has taught the theory of relativity, explained the nature of black holes in space and discussed the nitty-gritty of the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. In the process, she has demonstrated that a woman can do physics as well if not better than any man. Few teachers are more accessible to students than she, and few are less caught up in self.
Early this month, Cominsky gave two highly anticipated talks, one at SSU titled “A High Energy Life,” the other at the Rotary in Santa Rosa titled “High Energy Visions of the Universe.” In the first she traced her own career as a physicist in a largely male dominated academic discipline.
“I’m pretty high energy,” she says. “I’ve been high energy for as long as I can remember,” adding, “If you want the truth, I’m actually a rather boring nerd. I spend most of my life at a computer.” She’d much rather be horseback-riding over open fields.
Born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1953 to parents who were neither scientists nor intellectuals, Cominsky grew up reading the classics of fantasy and science fiction by the likes of Robert A. Heinlein (“Stranger in a Strange Land”) and Isaac Asimov (“Robots and Empire”). She attended Brandeis in Boston, hoping to study psychology because she wanted to work with flesh and blood human beings. But one class led to another, and by the end of her college days she had a dual degree in physics and chemistry.
“I fell in love with physics,” she says. “I had a huge ‘Aha!’ moment in a physics class and knew physics was for me. It was perfect for me. It like science fiction and it paid.”
After graduation she worked at Harvard, where she analyzed data from black holes in outer space. Then she met Christine Jones, a Harvard astronomer, who took her under her wing and pointed her toward the future.
“My mother introduced me to star gazing when I was a Girl Scout, and I learned to recognize the major constellations,” Cominsky says. “But Christine Jones was a real mentor. She sat me down and urged me to go to graduate school and get a Ph.D.”
Cominsky’s penchant for math, abstract thinking and analyzing data stood her in good stead at MIT, where she received her doctorate in 1981. Then, for the next five years she worked at the University of California in Berkeley, where she wrote grants and churned out scientific papers.