Radford University graduate shoots for the stars

Physics major Josh Carroll

At one point during Josh Carroll's Radford University planetarium show, he asks star gazers,

"What is dark matter?"

They react with silence, shrugs and a few "hmms."

He continues:

"I have no idea. If any of you figure it out, tell me and we can go get rich."

The audience laughs, and Carroll's self-created spectacle plays on.

Carroll, a senior physics major; astronomy and math minor, is the first Radford University student to create a planetarium show. "Stellar Origins" is based on several articles he contributed to the astronomy news website "Universe Today" and has aired almost every Tuesday/Thursday this semester in front of sold-out crowds.

Although Carroll will graduate this weekend and leave Radford University, planetarium director Rhett Herman said he doesn't think "Stellar Origins" will be his last astronomical foray.

"Wherever Josh ends up, I hope he's near a planetarium," Herman said. "He's got a real knack for it."

The show is just one of many milestones the soon-to-be-graduate can confidently recount.

Eyes set on the sky

Carroll, 30, has contemplated the sky above for a long time - for "light years," he joked.

In the third grade, he was asked to draw a picture of where he thought he might be when he turned 18 and graduated high school.

"I drew myself in a lab coat with a telescope behind me looking out the window at Saturn in the sky. I was holding a beaker," Carroll recalled.

His fascination with space and science persisted throughout each of his three deployments with the United States Army. In Iraq, as the war ravaged around him, the sky was a reprieve.

"Over there it's so dark, you can see the Milky Way. You can see all the stars," he said.

Carroll's journey to Radford University - to the stage he will walk across this weekend to earn his diploma – is comparable to any successful space mission:  terrifying, exhilarating, challenging and rewarding.

A new calling

Carroll was born in Virginia Beach but spent most of his childhood in the New River Valley. He attended Blacksburg High School, where he was a freshman when the September 11 attacks occurred.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," he said. "I watched the towers come down live…I was actually in New York City prior to 9/11 and have a photo of my brother and I leaning against the South Tower."

Carroll said up until that point, he had only toyed with the idea of enlisting.

"9/11 solidified it," he said.

Completely focused on joining the military, Carroll's grades took a hit. At one point, his grade point average (GPA) dropped as low as .9. At the end of his junior year, he got his General Educational Development (GED), enlisted in the Army and began two years of basic and infantry training. His first deployment came in 2007 to Tikrit, Iraq, a city north of Baghdad.

"We were in the middle of the surge," he said. "It was like the Wild West out there."

Carroll was in an infantry unit that escorted and protected convoys. As a light infantryman, his mission was to secure the roads of explosives.

"The insurgents knew they couldn't stand up to us in gun fight. We had better weapons and training," he explained. "Instead, they would plant IEDS [improvised explosive devices]. It [the roads] was the most dangerous place to be," Carroll said.

While serving, he suffered multiple injuries and overcame post-traumatic stress disorder.

He continued looking toward the future and the sky, "when I wasn't scanning the ground for bombs," he said.

A scientist is born

In between his three deployments, Carroll worked odd jobs. As a high school janitor, he rushed his duties and ended long work days in the library. One evening, a book in the science section caught his eye: "A Brief History of Time," by Stephen Hawking.

"That was the book that kind of changed everything for me," he said. "It sucked me in and reminded me of how much I loved science and space."
Using the GI Bill to fund his education, Carroll began taking classes at New River Community College.

The bill, Carroll explained, is very strict. It allows one failed-class redo and a very tight timeframe to complete a degree.

Failure was not an option, he said.

Carroll recognized he was far behind in math. Geometry was the highest level he had completed. To qualify for college-level math – a must for anyone pursuing a science degree – he was expected to complete nine remedial math courses.

"That was a lot of money and time I didn't have," Carroll said.

He did, however, have the determination to do something about it.

The summer before his last semester of community college, he worked as a security guard at a retirement center. Every night as he sat in a security van for 12 straight hours, Carroll's phone lit up the dark sky blaring YouTube videos that taught long derivatives, upon which physics is based.

"It was basically a very forced and guided crash course," Carroll said.

With his newfound, self-taught knowledge, Carroll marched into the math department that fall and was allowed to skip the last remedial math courses and into pre-calculus.

"I passed with the highest grade in the class," Carroll said.

Carroll eagerly enrolled at Radford University in spring 2015 with one caveat – if he was going to declare a physics major, he had to take pre-calculus with trigonometry.

"I didn't even know what trig was at the time," Carroll said.

YouTube to the rescue: in the month leading up to his first semester at Radford, Carroll taught himself trigonometry and was allowed yet another skip.

He hasn't looked back.

Becoming a physicist

Carroll has worked tirelessly these past two years, tackling a course load most students have four years to complete.

"No matter how busy Josh is – and he's always busy – he keeps his composure," Herman said. "He's been an invaluable student."

Carroll is just as appreciative of Herman's support and many other faculty members and mentors who have guided him along the way.

"Physics is a small, tight-knit community here," Carroll said. "I know these professors and have actual relationships with them. At Radford, you get a much better student-faculty relationship than you would at another university."

As he juggles multiple labs, exams and classes – such as electromagnetism, advanced astrophysics and quantum mechanics – Carroll always finds time for the planetarium.

For his hard work, Herman nominated Carroll for the H.S. ("Buddy") and Janet N. Johnson Outstanding Student Work Award, which Carroll accepted at a special ceremony on April 28.

Carroll's original masterpiece, "Stellar Origins," explores massive stars, what happens when they die and how that process is tied to how life forms in the universe. It always circles back to math, Carroll said, a study with which he once struggled but now respects.

"Mathematics is great," he said. "It is the language of the universe. When I'm up at 3 a.m. doing calculations, I recognize that I'm not just 'doing math.' What I'm doing is conversing with the stars."

Herman said when Carroll graduates, he's going to clean up the show, put together a script and upload it to the Digistar5 platform so about 400 planetariums across the globe can access it.

Carroll's path beyond the planetarium and Radford University is still unclear. He's considering graduate school or a physics teaching job.  His dream job is one with NASA.

Whatever happens, there's one thing for certain: Carroll may one day hold the answers to his questions under the starry sky of the Radford University planetarium.

May 2, 2017
Mary Hardbarger
(540) 831-5150