Dentist is an astronomy rock star

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Anne Ball
Dentist and astronomer Joel Goodman stands before the planetarium dome at the new Robinson Nature Center in Columbia. Goodman’s work introducing school children to the stars earned him Howard County’s Volunteer of the Year award this fall.
Photo by Frank Klein

The affable dentist who goes by the moniker Star Doc works with precision using delicate instruments and focusing on the minutiae of each patient’s mouth. That’s his day job.

But at night, Dr. Joel Goodman, 59, relaxes by pulling out a telescope and searching the vastness of the night sky, occasionally cursing the “light pollution” thwarting his view.

He shares his fascination with everyone who will listen, especially youngsters and their parents who have attended his Celestial Searchers after-school classes over the past 15 years.

For that work with the after-school astronomy clubs — and for putting in more than 275 volunteer hours last year helping the new Robinson Nature Center in Columbia grow in scope, programming and reputation — Goodman was named Howard County’s Volunteer of the Year this fall.

“I am truly humbled by this recognition,” he said. “To be given an award for doing something I enjoy so much is amazing.”

Sharing his love of stars

The nature center’s program director, Meagan Leatherbury, nominated Goodman for the award. She cited his untiring efforts promoting the inclusion of a digital planetarium set-up at the center and, once it was established, following up with long hours on the computer programming the shows.

“He’s just amazing,” Leatherbury noted. “He’s very passionate about his work, so giving of his time, and he puts so much enthusiasm into everything he does. And that enthusiasm is passed on to everyone who attends the programs, whether adult or youngster.”

With her nomination, she included a quote from a thank-you note she received from a second grader at Swansfield Elementary School in Columbia after a recent field trip to the nature center: “My favorite thing I learned was about the first dwarf planet …Ceres. I learned Ceres is really an asteroid, but it is called a dwarf planet. I was very happy in the planetarium and sad when I had to leave.”

And John Byrd, director of the county’s Recreation and Parks Department, likens Goodman to “a giant magnet.”

“Everyone who works with him or goes to one of his programs is hooked,” Byrd said. “He’s a rock star volunteer for the department.”

Goodman in turn acknowledges the encouragement of the late Gary Arthur, former head of the county’s Recreation and Parks Department, who had overseen the development of the center. With Arthur’s encouragement, Goodman created more than 45 original presentations for the new center’s Nature Sphere/Planetarium.

More time for astronomy

Goodman is looking ahead to filling the coming year with more astronomy and sky-awareness activities. And not just in the evenings — he wants to make it his full-time endeavor.

He’s planning to sell the dental practice he opened at Ten Oaks Plaza in Glenelg in 1983, but will remain with the practice as an associate. He expects to use the additional time to pursue more daytime astronomy activities at the Robinson Center and to ramp up his work with the Howard Astronomical League (HAL).

HAL is known for its monthly family-ori ented Star Parties and its promotion of new ordinances to control excess artificial lighting that inhibits the viewing of stars in the night sky.

Goodman said that one of the league’s early events will be the opening of a publicly accessible observatory at Alpha Ridge Park in Marriottsville. The building will contain a circular platform with a wheelchair lift, made possible by a state grant, fundraising by members and in-kind donations.

On exhibit in the observatory will be the hefty sky blue telescope built in the late ’30s or early ’40s by Paul Watson, then president of the Maryland Academy of Sciences. The historic telescope is currently stored in the basement of Dr. Goodman’s Clarksville home.

In his “retirement,” Dr. Goodman is also looking forward to spending some extra time with his wife Sally Lentz and stepson Jacob Cowan. Another stepson, Max Cowan, died four years ago at age 16. Goodman credits Max as an inspiration for continuing his volunteer work.

Inspiring young stargazers

A Baltimore native but longtime resident of Howard County, Goodman said he had some interest in amateur astronomy as a youngster, taking notice as an 8-year-old when President John F. Kennedy in 1961 announced plans to put a man on moon within the decade.

And when Neil Armstrong did walk on the moon eight years later, Goodman was working as a camp counselor. He was so excited that he woke up the campers in his charge to witness the grainy black and white telecast that reached Earth late at night.

“They were grumbling about losing sleep, but I let them know this was truly a unique event in the entire history of mankind,” Goodman said, laughing as he recalled the situation.

A few years later, enrolled at Duke University, he considered astronomy for a short time. Though strong in math, he decided he just did not have the interest in the theoretical aspects of math and physics to be an astronomy major.

Instead he moved in the direction of health careers, eventually landing at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry in Baltimore, where he graduated with honors in 1989.

But the interest in amateur astronomy never left him. Fast forward to 1997, when the Hale-Bopp comet was making news. Goodman put together a program on sky watching for two classes at Bushey Park Elementary School in Glenwood.

“Small kids are always interested in dinosaurs and space,” he said. “Eventually dinosaurs go away. But space is always there, continuing to interest and inspire.”

Building on that philosophy, and with the help of parents, teachers and the Bushey Park PTA, he developed a once-a-month program on astronomy for elementary and middle school students and their parents.

They held a contest to name the group, and two of the participants, ages 7 and 9, won with “Celestial Searchers,” which remains the group’s name.

And Goodman believes that, for young people, the study of the universe is “more important now than ever…It is centering, very centering. We need the cosmos,” he said.

“In today’s society we have this amazing connection to iPods and cell phones. But what is really important is our connection to what is bigger than us — the universe.”