Former UAF professor gives people reason to look up

Michelle Bartlett, Director of UAF Summer Sessions, introduces Neal Brown, professor emeritus from UAF. Photo by Andrew Sheeler/UAF Sun Star Jan. 13, 2011

By Andrew Sheeler
Sun Star Reporter

In the early 60’s, the enthusiasm for science, especially space science, was infectious. An entire generation reached for the stars and raced to the moon. Once we got there, our enthusiasm waned and our gaze turned earthbound once more. Neal Brown, UAF professor emeritus, seeks to turn our eyes upward once more in his free, two-part lecture series on the aurora, sponsored by UAF WINTERmester. Roughly 60 people showed up for the first lecture, which took place Thursday, Jan. 13. The second lecture will take place Friday, Jan. 14. Both lectures were scheduled from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Schaible Auditorium in the Bunnell Building.

Brown was there in the 60’s, working for NASA as part of a team trying to figure out how astronauts could survive the fiery re-entry in to Earth. He looks back at that time and recalls the feeling of excitement at the time. He called the experience amazing. “They had a mission,” Brown said, “They wanted to get a man on the moon.” During his time with NASA, Brown’s experience with atmospheric science led to a love of the aurora. His love was so strong that he accepted a job in ice-covered Greenland to study it. The pay and free housing didn’t hurt. “I was pretty broke at the time,” Brown said.

It was from Greenland that Brown came to UAF in 1963, where he received his master’s degree in geophysics. He called UAF “the perfect place to come” to study the aurora. Brown went on to become a professor at the Geophysical Institute and then director of the Poker Flat Research Range, where researchers launch rockets and balloons up into the atmosphere to study everything from the aurora to magnetic storms.

Brown retired in 1995 but didn’t stop teaching. He remained a consultant to UAF and took his enthusiasm for science and the aurora to grade school classrooms all the way up to the OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute for students 50 and older. Brown also served many years as Director of the Alaska Space Grant program, which coordinates with NASA to steer research dollars and opportunities to Alaska students.

Brown said that despite the wide range of ages in his students, “There’s always some little piece of curiosity.” His lectures are very “hands-on,” with the audience being handed a variety of tools to help them better understand the aurora. These tools include “opera glasses” that refract light, with different kinds of gaseous lights displaying different kinds of patterns. This explains why the aurora comes in so many colors, Brown said. Another tool was a small globe, about the size of a tennis ball, with a magnet inside it. Using that globe and a magnetized pointer, Brown helped the audience understand how the magnetic field surrounds Earth and helps to grab the ionized particles from the sun and snap them back to earth like a rubber band, creating the aurora. This physical, interactive approach helps Brown to keep the attention of an ever-distracted audience.

“People aren’t too interested anymore,” Brown said. “A lot of people just want a quick answer.” Brown isn’t sure that America will ever return to the enthusiasm of the space race days, but he hopes that his lectures ignite a spark of creativity in his students.

Sarah Seifert, a senior at UAF majoring in Japanese Studies, said she signed up for the class because she lived in Alaska her whole life and grew up watching the aurora. “My father used to actually keep mattresses in the back of his truck and [we’d] put them out in the driveway and lay down and watch the aurora,” Seifert said.

The second part of Neal Brown’s lecture will take place Friday, Jan. 14, from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the Schaible Auditorium

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