Aleksander Wolszczan woke up last Thursday in Poland and found himself in the headlines.
It was a far cry from 1992, when thrilling news that he had discovered the first planets outside our solar system rocketed through the worldwide scientific community. And it was nothing like those uncertain days in 1968, when the young university student was barred from his college radio station for broadcasts criticizing the communist government.
Gazeta Polska, a right-wing weekly publication, accused Wolszczan, 62, of being a spy. The article -- promptly pounced on by media outlets across Poland -- said national archives show he provided information in exchange for gifts and money to the communist-era Polish secret police, known as the SB, about anti-communist or subversive activities undertaken by senior professors he knew at the time.
The Penn State astronomy professor tried this week to digest the unflattering swirl of history, sitting an ocean away from the newsstands casting him as a mole.
"I really have no words to describe it," he said, flatly denying he betrayed his colleagues.
Wolszczan arrived at Penn State in 1992 and was named an Evan Pugh Professor, the highest honor given to Penn State faculty, in 1998. He was overseas last week to speak at a conference in Warsaw, the capital of his native Poland, where postage stamps bear his face and people recognize him in the streets.
Back in his Davey Laboratory office Monday, Wolszczan became visibly hesitant at the mention of the accusations and press coverage that have spilled into Polish newspapers and 24-hour news networks. A soft-spoken man wearing stylish metal-framed glasses atop youthful features, the subject quickly strained the faint smile that often flickers across his face.
The issue is not whether Wolszczan met with secret police; he admits he did and granted an interview for the initial article. While his contact with the SB had been a private matter, it was not even completely secret -- his wife already knew, he said.
What angers him is that his discussions have been misconstrued by the Polish media, he said. Wolszczan, referred to in the agency's archives under the pseudonym "Lange," said he naively agreed to communicate with the SB when he signed a "loyalty statement" conditional to leaving the country in 1973. Eager to pursue his graduate studies in Germany and become one of the few scholars allowed to travel outside communist Poland, he said it was only after he signed that he realized he had been trapped.
Michael Bernhard, a Penn State political science professor and author of a book on underground political writings in Poland, supported Wolszczan's assertions that many of his colleagues also spoke to the SB.
"All young Polish researchers who got a chance to travel to the west were pressured in this way. He was undoubtedly brought in for a chat and investigated," Bernhard said.
In line with his lifelong temperament, possibly shaped by his experiences during the historic Polish student uprisings in March 1968 and witnessing those who spoke out continually falling victim to the system, Wolszczan said he resigned to meeting with the SB three or four times per year.
"Confrontation has never been my way of life," he told Penn State officials in a prepared statement he gave to the university on his own volition.
Instead, he said he would toe the line in the hour-long, in-person meetings with SB men, ducking questions by speaking generally or saying nothing at all.
"The guy would say 'Oh, I just heard about professor X coming from country Y,' and I would say 'Indeed, yes, he's coming next week,' " Wolszczan said.
He said he never gave up information that would have harmed any of his colleagues and argues any documents stating he divulged intelligence are fabricated.
Bernhard said Wolszczan's account of clamming up when talking to the secret police is "certainly believable" and was used by many Poles in his situation.
"Some of [the SB agents] made stuff up to please their superiors," Bernhard said. "In the case of someone like [Wolszczan], with a reputation as a world-class researcher, someone may have made something up as well, as a way to put pressure on him or to ruin his reputation."
Wolszczan said he took presents from the SB to avoid confrontation, but threw them away.
"There was absolutely no way I would accept anything from the SB," he told the university.
Larry Ramsey, the head of Penn State's astronomy department, said the university was satisfied with Wolszczan's account of the events and would support him through his current notoriety.
"It is impossible to judge a situation 30 years ago under a repressive regime which, thankfully, we have no experience with," Ramsey said. "We have no reason not to believe his account ... as it is typical of many others during that period."
Wolszczan's defense and indignation when confronted by the accusations serve as a telling insight into both Poland's past and present.
In the wake of colossal losses during World War II, the country fell under the Soviet sphere of influence.
Communism manacled the People's Republic of Poland from 1945 to 1989, bringing with it increased government control and social unrest. Wolszczan recalls smuggling data over the border for projects he was working on at school in Germany.
During the early 1980s, the anti-communist Solidarity movement sprung to life, persevering even as the government imposed a period of martial law. Wolszczan said he helped sneak banned literature into the country during Solidarity and, during his final contact with the SB in 1981, he was asked about a fellow professor who was aggressively involved in the movement.
Wolszczan said he refused to talk about the professor and never saw the SB agents again.
In recent years, Poland has seen a rise in conservative nationalism that frequently takes a withering look back at the country's history of communist rule. The party in power has promised to remove all those from public life who secretly communicated with communist authorities, which likely includes a substantial proportion of the country's intelligentsia and political elite.
"Much of the current use of the [SB] records is political," Bernhard said. "The current president, Lech Kaczynski, and his party are using the records to attack many prominent Poles with moral standing in society."
Last year, similar accusations were brought against the late Ryszard Kapuscinski, the leading Polish journalist of his time. Earlier this summer, former president and Solidarity founder Lech Walesa was also accused of cooperating with the SB.
Wolszczan called the accusations against him a part of a political "smear campaign." It is unlikely he would face any legal charges, as the current law only prevents those who failed to declare their contact with the SB from seeking political office.
Nonetheless, for many right-leaning Poles, Wolszczan may now be forever tied to the country's legacy of repression. But as news of his contact with the secret police has traveled, he said he's found far more supporters than detractors flooding his inbox.