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.
“I almost took a job at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory when Reagan was president and the Star Wars defense was a big thing,” she says. “I just couldn’t do it. They wanted me to show them how to make Star Wars operational. I thought that was a terrible idea. Maybe it might have protected us from a few missiles in space, but it couldn’t stop bombs launched from enemy submarines or carried in suitcases.”
In 1986, she arrived at SSU raring to go. She has been a mainstay of the physics department ever since, though she hasn’t settled into a routine, slowed down her pace or rested on past achievements. This semester, she has seven full-time employees, all of them supported by grants, all doing research on a variety of projects. Some are aimed at making physics more widely understood, others with the goal of recruiting students into the discipline itself.
“Education has the power to change peoples’ behavior,” she says. “I have devoted myself to educating about science.”
That’s a tall order, more so now than ever before. In classrooms, undergraduates are a real challenge.
“These days, students mostly don’t want to know anything about facts,” Cominsky says. “They want to know how the subject relates to them and their lives. Those who decide to major in physics often want to disprove Einstein, something that hasn’t happened since he proposed his theory of general relativity in 1916 and not since 1955, when he died.”
A highly sought-after public speaker, Cominsky gives talks in San Francisco, Santa Rosa and on the SSU campus, though she’s occasionally asked by her colleagues to tone down her somber thoughts about wars, weapons of mass destruction, conventional weapons, mass shootings and deaths on highways.
“Automobile accidents kill more people than guns,” she says, “but we don’t stop driving cars.”
Recently, Cominsky has begun traveling beyond the borders of the U.S., attending conferences with fellow physicists in Italy, France, Japan and Hungary, where she fell in love with the architecture and ambiance of old Budapest.
At her ranch in Petaluma, where she lives with her husband of 35 years, physicist Garrett Jernigan, she cares for her “critters,” as she calls them: chickens, cats, dogs, goats and horses, plus one rabbit and one pheasant.
Now 62, she would like to retire from SSU but isn’t sure how to do that. It just might be the most challenging of all her many complex enterprises.
“I don’t have an exit strategy,” she says. “I don’t have my retirement mapped out.”
In fact, it’s probably a bit too soon for Cominsky to take her Einstein doll home and pack up her books. Next year is the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, an occasion that she doesn’t want to miss. And there are new advances in science on the horizon.
“We’re very close to the discovery of gravitational waves,” she says, well aware that it’s a topic that defies easy explanation. “Einstein knew about them, but neither he nor anyone else has known how to measure them. Now we’re on the brink of doing just that.”
In retirement, Cominsky might try to answer some of the big philosophical questions she has avoided, the whys along with the whos and the whens and wheres. She might ride horseback more often or take up her love of puzzles. And she might begin to test the limits again.
“When I was in college, I was a model student and got straight A’s,” she says. “I learned that if you got good grades you could get away with a lot of stuff.”