You may have seen Michael Dennin featured on the History Channel's Ancient Aliens. No, he's not the dude with the nuclear-blast-blown hairdo and cocksure answers to life's mysteries. On a cable-TV series that espouses spaceship-arriving, extraterrestrial contacts throughout civilization, Dennin—a professor of physics and astronomy at UC Irvine—is the calm voice of reason.
"There is a lot that's hard to explain," says the amiable Connecticut native, who has worked at the university for 17 years. "There could be alien life very different from us. But if we'd been visited by aliens, I can't imagine it could be kept a secret."
In the scientific community, Ancient Aliens is considered popcorn entertainment, and Chris White's Ancient Aliens Debunked documentary offers piercing criticism, but Dennin is elated to have appeared in episodes on all six seasons.
"People ask me why I'm involved," he says on a recent afternoon inside his cramped, cluttered campus office. "Because I can help put real science into it, and the show raises really interesting questions."
The Irvine resident, husband to a wife who teaches at Mater Dei High School and father of three daughters, is a firm believer in public outreach on science. Because of the show, he is recognized in airports, coffee shops and malls across the nation. He has earned numerous teaching honors, created an award-winning online course, gives inspiring public speeches, makes himself available to journalists and is presently writing two books. One is a textbook for non-science majors, and the other is a 10-chapter book for the general public, tentatively titled God Is The Ultimate Superhero, that will dovetail with his Catholic beliefs.
"It's about how science enhances faith as opposed to being opposite to it," says Dennin, a graduate of Princeton University and UC Santa Barbara. He grew up loving all the Star Wars and Star Trek films, Friends, and anything with Michael J. Fox, as well as science-fiction stories by Isaac Asimov. "When I was a kid, my biggest interest was in how to get into outer space."
While he was terrified of giving oral reports in elementary school, he has developed into a professor at ease addressing large groups. Cracking a smile, Dennin says he discovered as an adult that he's "a partially frustrated actor who loves to ham it up." He gave "a science talk" in 2013 at an international UFO Congress in Arizona, and, though more skeptical than the attendees, he shares their fascination with space-travel concepts.
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"I know a guy who is a special-effects expert, and he studies UFO [footage]," Dennin says. "He tells me that he has not yet seen one that he can't explain."
But Dennin enjoys wondering about future possibilities, saying, "Somewhere out there might be life that we run into someday."
One of the ways he's developed a reputation for offering enjoyable but challenging UCI courses is by using comic-book superheroes in his teaching. Students in his class create their own superheroes, give them special powers, and report on how the character's abilities do and don't align with known laws of physics.
"It's really fun," says the professor, who counts Spider-Man as his favorite superhero, although he's also particularly fond of the Batman portrayed in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight series. For leisure, Dennin likes to take his family to Disneyland, coach youth soccer, read history books and play golf. But physics is never far from his attention. In his office, he becomes animated talking about advances we might see in a decade: photon-run computers and the cloaking of solid materials by bending light. It's almost otherworldly.