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Alum of the Month

February 2017 Alum of the Month: Jeffrey C. Hall '82

Jeffrey C. Hall '82 is an astrophysicist and the Director of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ, a non-profit research institution. Established in 1894 by Percival Lowell, the Observatory is significant both for its cultural heritage and for its scientific discoveries. Recognized as a Registered National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service, and for its discovery of Pluto and for gathering the earliest observational evidence of the expanding nature of the universe, Lowell was named by Time magazine in 2011 as one of "The World's 100 Most Important Places."

Hall entered Hotchkiss in September 1980 as a lower mid. "We looked at prep schools from Virginia, where I lived, to New England, and visited four. I had a gut feeling about Hotchkiss," he says. Though Hall pursued the full science curriculum available at that time, he notes that his now-wife and then-classmate, Schenley Hajek '82, was the one with the "clear aptitude for math." But, having had the late Russ Hansen for physics and outstanding instruction in English by Sam Coughlin, Hall also did very well. "Russ taught a very solid course, and I hit college physics at full speed. Nothing we covered in first-year college physics was new to me, and this was also true in calculus. And thanks to Sam, I could communicate well." With fine capabilities in physics and math, Hall gravitated toward astrophysics, crediting a fifth-grade teacher for kindling his interest in astronomy. "Whatever she covered, she had a way of making it totally interesting."

Having earned a B.A. in physics from Johns Hopkins in 1986, Hall received his Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics from Pennsylvania State University in 1991. He joined the staff at Lowell the following year as a postdoctoral research fellow, with research emphasis on variations of the Sun and Sunlike stars. He and his colleagues began a long-term program, still continuing today, of monitoring solar and stellar activity cycles, with the goal of lending an astronomical perspective to solar influences on terrestrial climate. The Lowell research team uses the Solar-Stellar Spectrograph, an instrument fed by optical fibers from a solar feed and from a 1.1-meter telescope, to characterize the magnetic activity of about 100 stars as well as the Sun. Meanwhile, colleagues at Tennessee State University measure the accompanying brightness fluctuations of the same stars, using robotic telescopes at an observatory south of Tucson. Analysis of the spectroscopy and photometry in tandem helps the team infer how the Sun's brightness may have varied over the past decades, centuries, or even millennia.

By 1998, Hall was splitting his time between research and managing Lowell's large and diverse astronomy outreach programs. After he was appointed Director of the Observatory in 2010, his responsibilities became mainly fundraising, with little time for research. To keep the work moving along, he says, "I found a brilliant graduate student at Boulder, and I threw my data his way. Fundraising is vitally important for any non-profit, and in this time when the usual sources of federal funding are increasingly stressed, we rely heavily on private individuals. It is incredibly expensive to run an observatory. In 2012, we completed the $53-million, 4.3-meter Discovery Channel Telescope (DCT), allowing us to vastly expand our research capabilities, and through our partnership with Discovery Communications, we have a conduit to hundreds of millions of people worldwide. But it costs approximately three million dollars a year to operate that telescope alone. When you build an asset greater than the entire previous worth of the company, it's transformative, and Lowell is now in a time of profound change. Happily, the product is solid: our faculty are internationally renowned experts in their fields; DCT is an incredibly well-built and efficient facility; and our outreach programs are first-rate, attracting about 100,000 people each year to our campus."

As a member of the American Astronomical Society's standing committee on light pollution, space debris, and radio interference, Hall has played an active role in dark-sky preservation efforts around Arizona and beyond. "Dark skies are a beautiful natural resource and one of my key interests. Along with the fact that many kids will grow up having never seen the Milky Way or the brilliant stars in the night sky, we are seeing a number of other adverse effects from light pollution. Disruption of the natural light-dark cycle has been linked to human circadian rhythms and health impacts. The Phoenix sky glow can now be seen 100 miles away, and we know that nighttime sky glow adversely affects various species and ecologically sensitive areas. The nationwide move to LED lights has the potential for ruinous effect on night skies. And our research facilities like the DCT or the Navy Precision Optical Interferometer, which we operate for the Navy and which sprawls across a quarter-mile of one of our dark-sky sites, are exquisitely sensitive to even tiny amounts of light pollution."

Hall also remains keenly interested in secondary school science and the teaching of it. "I am a former president of the Governing Board of Northland Preparatory Academy here in Flagstaff, and I have children myself. The teaching of science has evolved, and schools are making big strides in experiential learning. There is more teaching of critical thinking in a blended way, moving away from just lecturing. The creation of a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) -literate work force is a national imperative, and the U.S. investment in R&D at the federal level is falling behind that of many other nations. Schools like Hotchkiss offer a high level of instruction and have the resources available to do so. I would love to see the teaching of STEM continue to advance as a national priority."

It is difficult to predict the new discoveries on the horizon, but Hall thinks the research happening today will pay large dividends down the road. "Physicists of the early 20th century sat and thought about things, and the seemingly abstract – even bizarre – ideas they came up with, such as relativity and quantum mechanics, ultimately led to the invention, for example, of the transistor. The technology we rely on so heavily today can be directly traced to the pure research of a century ago. And today's research likewise will pay off in ways we cannot predict."

Hall is excited about Hotchkiss's new observatory. "I'm glad to see physics and astronomy thriving at Hotchkiss, for there are many reasons to study it. There is the practical payoff of pure research, as we've noted. There is the positive effect exploration and discovery have on humankind – look how our badly fractured world was enthralled and unified when New Horizons zipped past Pluto in 2015 and returned images that found themselves above the fold of almost every newspaper on the planet. And there is value in just knowing stuff, and in pondering our most profound questions: How do the atoms in our bodies work, and how did they become self-aware? Where did the Universe come from? Is Earth the only place where life wonders about its origins? Physics and astronomy speak to all of those, and if there is life elsewhere in the solar system or in the Universe, I think it likely that within my lifetime, and certainly within the lifetime of our current Hotchkiss students, we'll detect signs of it. It's a great time to be alive."

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