Lecturer in the Spotlight: Lex Kaper
‘You're actually showing students what it's like to be a scientist’
Astronomer Lex Kaper teaches Astrophysics in the second year of the Bachelor's in Physics and Astronomy and the Observation Project in the Master's programme, in which students spend ten nights working at the observatory on La Palma in the Canary Islands. ‘That may well be the most expensive course in the degree programme,’ says Kaper.
Speaking of expensive things, Kaper is one of the driving forces behind an international consortium responsible for the design and construction of an instrument for the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) which is currently being built in Chile, at the price of €1.2 billion. Previously he worked on the construction of the X-shooter, the most sensitive spectrograph in the world, which is used for observations at the edge of the universe, some 13 billion light-years away.
Challenged by young minds
Kaper's research is on the formation and evolution of massive stars, responsible for the production of the chemical elements we are made of. In addition, he has just joined the board of the European Astronomical Society. But if you think that this leaves him no time to teach, think again. ‘Teaching is one of the reasons I returned to the university. I was working in Munich at the European Southern Observatory, but looked forward to working with young people again. Besides lecturing, I really enjoy the interaction with students. Their questions, amazement and curiosity makes it extremely challenging and interesting.’
'I'm the textbook!'
For Kaper, too, it all began with a sense of amazement about the universe and the desire to understand how it all works. ‘The nice thing about astronomy is that it brings together many subjects – nuclear physics, solid state physics, relativity theory... but also fields outside the realm of physics, since we also deal with subjects from chemistry and geology, such as minerals and fossils.’ It is a great deal of knowledge to pass on, while science continues to develop at an unrelenting speed. ‘Sometimes someone will comment during a lecture that the subject isn't in the textbook, in which case I reply ‘Well hello, I’m the textbook!’’
‘But it's not just about the transfer of knowledge,’ Kaper continues. ‘You're actually showing what it's like to be a scientist.’ In his very own way, Kaper teaches his students that this also involves a certain degree of discipline. ‘Students here in Amsterdam tend to follow their own rules to a degree and aren't always on time. This past academic year some of them would arrive at lectures half an hour late, so I would say, ‘That's fine, but at least bring me coffee.’ The next lecture I got no less than six cappuccinos. I really appreciate things like that.’
No time to grow bored
This summer, after nine years, Kaper retired as chair of the Board of Studies for the Physics and Astronomy BSc programme. ‘Students make all the difference there. They're in the thick of things, have their own contacts and make valuable suggestions. During the accreditation process two years ago they really impressed the committee with their passion for the programme and their education.’
Will he miss it? ‘Well, it's simply the right time. The degree programme has now been fully merged with that of VU Amsterdam and nine years is of course quite a long time to occupy such a position.’ Luckily, he won't have time to grow bored. The multi-object spectrograph he is developing for the E-ELT (‘just think of it as the eyes of the telescope’) is being built on a ten-year time scale. ‘With projects becoming larger and more expensive, they also take more time. But that's all right, I’m not retiring any time soon.’