By Chelsea Edgar
Jeffrey Hall '82, director of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ, spoke to astronomy and physics students in the newly opened Class of 2017 EFX Lab on Oct. 9. Established in 1894 by Percival Lowell, the Observatory is significant both for its cultural heritage and its scientific discoveries. Recognized as a Registered National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service, Lowell is known for discovering Pluto and gathering the earliest observational evidence of the Big Bang theory. In 2011, Time magazine named Lowell Observatory one of "The World's 100 Most Important Places."
During his visit to Instructor in Physics and Astronomy Ian Chute's class, Hall shared insights from his career at the non-profit research center, where he has overseen projects that range from building a $50-million telescope to "dark sky" preservation efforts in Arizona. Hall's own research focuses on how solar activity affects Earth's climate, an area of growing importance in light of the increasing frequency of severe weather events.
Hall fielded questions from students about working at an observatory, particularly the challenges of dealing with fragile, highly sensitive equipment. In one instance, he and his researchers found slight inconsistencies in data that were the result of continental plates gradually shifting over time. Other students were curious about who uses the observatory; Hall explained that while Lowell Observatory is often used by graduate and doctoral students of several universities, including Boston University, the University of Maryland, and Yale, access to telescopes is becoming more difficult as funding grows scarce.
Cloudy skies prevented Hall from using the telescope in the Hotchkiss Observatory later that evening, but he was able to take a tour with a group of astronomy students.
"Dr. Hall brought enthusiasm and clarity to the complex world of astronomy and astronomical instrumentation," said Chute. "An overview of his research on solar variations and solar influences on climate showed the importance of astronomical research, detailing how it directly influences our everyday life and the future environment of our planet. He also provided the students a look into the life of an astronomer, giving a glimpse into the process from college to postgraduate work and how competitive it is in the scientific community."