Astronomy professor is living his passion


The 56-year-old man with silvery white hair and clear blue eyes standing at the front of the classroom smiles, watching the class fill up.

All Joseph Ward Moody wanted to do when he grew up was learn more about the stars, a passion that has carried him through life. Now he works to spread the wonder as a BYU professor of astronomy.

“From the time I was really little, I’ve gazed up at the heavens and wanted to know more about it,” he said. “Pretty much my profession was set by the time I was out of fifth grade,” Moody said. “I was fortunate, I was very fortunate, to have figured out what I wanted to be so young. … I’ve not changed my mind since, and it’s been a rush.”

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Dr. J. Ward Moody is a professor of astronomy at BYU.
Cindy, Moody’s wife, said he told her he always wanted to be an astronomer.

“I can sense his love for it,” she said. “He loves to sit out and show [our children] things.”

Once, when they were first dating, Moody wrote her name on several picture slides so when he showed them, “There was my name written in the stars,” Cindy said. “I was impressed.”

Moody attributed part of his passion to growing up on an alfalfa farm in the rural town of Delta, where he spent his summer days working in the fields, doing “everything that you can do with alfalfa — water it, weed it, plow the ground, cut it, haul it and bale it,” and many a night looking up.

“As I would be out there in the fields working,” Moody said, “you could look up in the heavens and see the stars, and I could look down and see a shovel in my hands and dirt on my feet, mud on my boots, and think, ‘What do I want? What do I want to do with life? Do I want the mud or do I want the stars?’ I absolutely wanted the stars, and so I vowed that whatever I had to do to become a professional, I was going to do it.”

Moody’s determination made a distinct first impression on Michael Joner, a fellow astronomy professor who has been friends with “J” since they met as undergraduates in the physics program at BYU.

“He was very dedicated to doing well,” Joner said. “Even though the material we were studying was usually pretty difficult, he would take it really hard if he didn’t get everything right.”

When he wasn’t studying, Moody supplemented his love for astronomy and physics with the wrestling team in high school, and folk dancing while he was at BYU. He used wrestling as an athletic outlet and an opportunity to become more “rounded.” Folk dancing had an extra attraction: “You got to meet short girls.”

After he married Cindy and graduated from BYU in 1980, Moody completed a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan and worked in a postdoctoral research position at the Institute for Astrophysics in New Mexico. While there, he received an offer that would change his life — to be a professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

He said the opportunity was a good one, but it wasn’t right for him. Instead, he took a job at Weber State.

“I made a decision to get out of the world of high profile, fast-track research astronomy, which can be rather stressful,” he said. “That was a huge turning point because really, in my heart of hearts, the Case Western job was just everything I wanted. I knew when I made that decision that I would be going away from that side of astronomy, and it was painful; but I knew it to be the right decision, and so I made it. Because of that decision I ended up even outside of astronomy for a while, which really taught me how much I wanted to be here.”

After a brief debut working as a “quality control engineer” for a computer sciences company, a position unexpectedly opened up at BYU and Moody rejoined the world of astronomy academia in 1990.

Sara Djurich, a senior student from Lehi who took astronomy from Moody in fall 2010, said Moody was one of her favorite teachers “of all time” because of his willingness to answer questions and discuss theory, as well as his dry sense of humor and intelligence.

“I can hardly believe I’ve been here for 20 years; I guess it’s going on 21 years,” Moody said. “It has flown by, and I feel now as I felt 20 years ago, that it’s an absolute privilege to be here, associate with students. Seeing students learn and grow … and seeing people’s knowledge expand, and their appreciation for what’s around them expand — I don’t know if there’s anything better in the world.”

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