Going back to a time before even he can remember, Shanil Virani apparently had an intense interest in astronomy.
"If you ever talked to my mother, she would tell you that, when I was very young, younger than I have any memory of—so I have doubts that it actually happened—she says I would see the moon and say I wanted it."
But Virani, director of the John C. Wells Planetarium, did know early on that what went on in the heavens interested him greatly.
"When I was in elementary school, I remember learning about the planets and their orbits and revolution vs. rotation and understanding that, so much so that the next day when we were doing a review, I put up my hand when the teacher asked," said Virani.
As Virani grew older, his interest in astronomy kept up. The technological advancements that allowed the field of astronomy to become clearer to the rest of the world also fueled his desire. With the development of facilities such as the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope, pictures of nebulae, super novas and other objects in space captivated Virani.
"I wanted to understand what was going on and why it was the way it was. And so that mesmerized me. Wanting to know where we fit in this bigger picture and if we're alone," said Virani, who also teaches in the JMU Department of Physics and Astronomy and who worked for a time on the science operations team of the Chandra X-ray Observatory. "I think every astronomer wonders, is there life elsewhere? And if there is, how do we find that, how do we detect it, how do we look for it?"
While Virani is fascinated with the technology that allows researchers to delve deeper and deeper into the mysteries of outer space, he does not need technology to enjoy it. In fact, Virani doesn't even own a telescope or binoculars.
"The moon is so close and sometimes we take it for granted because you can see it with the un-aided eye, but through even a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, the features you can make out, the craters, the impacts, the terminator—the region separating night from day," said Virani. "I still get mesmerized by looking at the moon and seeing all those details."
Virani also enjoys looking at the constellation Orion, another feature of space that can be seen with the naked eye in the northern hemisphere beginning in late fall. Among its features are the stars Betelgeuse, a red supergiant, and Rigel, a young massive star that glows bluish white. Just below Orion's belt is a region where new stars are forming.
But there is something more than planets, moons and stars that captures Virani's interest of outer space.
"If you were to ask me what's the biggest scientific discovery that's waiting to happen and that science could possibly ever make, I would answer, 'It's the discovery of life outside of Earth,'" he said. "There's always so much we don't know compared to what we know so there's always more to discover. It's that larger dream of wanting to understand where we come from, where we are and where we're going."