Saturday, August 18, 2012

Physicist made mark early - The Advocate

The observatory atop LSU’s Nicholson Hall is named for him.

There’s a mountain in Antarctica named for him.

His work in measuring the brightness of stars has been compared to standards as basic as 16 ounces equal a pound.

Often, scientists don’t get observatories and mountains named after them until their dead. Arlo Landolt, 76, still keeps office hours in LSU’s physics department.

Landolt, who grew up on a farm in Illinois, attended high school in Highland, 40 miles east of St. Louis “on old U.S. Route 40, the Old National Trail.”

“The farm’s address was Pocahontas, Ill.,” said the retired physics professor.

Physics interested him in high school. In college, he majored in math and physics. In his last year as an undergraduate at Miami University of Ohio he thought, “astronomy.”

Landolt dropped out of graduate school at Indiana University to go to Antarctica, to winter over, as part of the International Geophysical Year in 1957.

He got to LSU in September 1962.

The year in Antarctica recording data on Aurora Australis, the Southern Lights, and the airglow undoubtedly helped his career, Landolt said. Airglow results when energetic particles from the sun ionize atoms in the earth’s outer atmosphere.

“Though I’m not sure how, it matured us,” he said. “I’ll tell you that.”

“You go in in the spring, our spring, Antarctica’s autumn, and you’re stuck until the following spring. The sun sets March 21 and rises Sept. 21.”

Paul A. Siple, a Boy Scout who went to Antarctica with Admiral Byrd in 1929 and wrote “90 Degrees South,” was wintering over for the fifth time when Landolt made his first and only stay at 90 degrees south.

Ninety degrees south is the latitude of the South Pole.

“When tempers flared,” Landolt said, “Siple would send them outside to cool off.”

The low that year was minus 102 Farenheit. The high was minus 6 degrees.

“We had the record low for awhile,” Landolt said.

Sometimes, it takes a physicist to describe the work of a fellow physicist. Here’s Robert F. O’Connell, LSU Boyd Professor, on the work of Landolt.

“Astronomers, for the most part, measure the brightness and spectra (colors) of stars and other celestial objects. These measurements are used to obtain, in particular, distances to stars and their ages. However, as with all measurements, one needs standards (as, for example, standard weights). The characteristics of most stars are such that they cannot be used as standards. However, there is a subset of stars which can be used as standards and are referred to as Spectrometric Standard Stars. Arlo Landolt’s research has been devoted to the study of such stars.”

Landolt measures the brightness, the intensity, of these stars at different wavelengths. His method of determining the brightness of a star, as well as other heavenly bodies, is used by astronomers worldwide and on the Hubble telescope.

Early July and Landolt and his wife were about to hit the road for the dedication of The Discovery Channel Telescope at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz.

“This telescope,” Landolt said, pointing vaguely at the ceiling and the observatory on the roof of Nicholson Hall, “had its heyday in the 1930s. Having it named for me was a nice honor. It’s used for open houses and for some class assignments, I guess.

“The faculty take students up there to see what’s in the sky. I mean it’s all on the Internet, but this is different.”

Ambient light of the campus and the city render the Landolt observatory less than ideal.

“We had an observatory in Clinton,” he said, “until we ran out of money. The telescope was removed in the early 1980s.”

“I think it’s in a state park south of Houston,” the astronomer said.

Science is job oriented today, Landolt said, but the future of research and discovery is bright.

Making physics not easy but something students see as worth stretching themselves for is up to the teacher, he said.

“Education isn’t a business with metrics that measure outcome. You want to expand your understanding.”

“You need to know the history and the philosophy of a subject,” he said. “It’s not just how to do something. Traditionally, that’s been the function of the trade school, hasn’t it?

Landolt’s been out of the classroom 10 years, but he gathers from colleagues that many students don’t work up to their capacity.

“Some people say online is the way to go,” Landolt said. “I hope not. You sit at a computer by yourself? It’s not the same as being in a classroom. You want a teacher making eye contact to see that a student’s getting it or not getting it.”

Some of Landolt’s work in light measurement is used on the Hubble space telescope whose discoveries will keep scientists working for years.

“Trying to understand what these discoveries hint at means a bright future for all of the sciences,” he said.

“I was a data taker,” Landolt said of his time in Antarctica. “We didn’t have a way to send data to anyone. It left with me when I flew out.”

He doesn’t remember how Mount Landolt came to be but he has the coordinates, 78-46 South, 84-30 West.

“I don’t know who started it, but everyone in that Geophysical Year got a mountain or a glacier or something named after him.

“We were the first to winter over at the South Pole, the geographic South Pole. Siple had wintered over before but on the coast, hundreds of miles from the South Pole itself.”

In 21-year-old Landolt’s camp, there were 18 men, no women.

Landolt’s winter at the South Pole is recounted in black and white photographs.

“We invented reasons for banquets. The length of my beard in this picture tells me it’s September. I left Thanksgiving Day.”

The scientists worked and passed the time indoors.

“There was no life outside. The only life was on the coast. Outside was just darkness. We’d go outside, but we didn’t go far. We might have gotten lost.”

His work on standard stars, Landolt said, was “built on photometry work by other people. My work’s more accurate because the equipment’s more advanced. The work of the people who follow me will be even more accurate.”

Landolt, the son of a “general farmer who grew what his family needed” was the first person in his extended family to leave the farm. In retirement, he still works at measuring the intensity of the brightness of stars.

Excitement creeps into his voice when he says, “There’s something permeating space, dark energy, dark matter. Where’s it coming from?”

Can he say simply what dark energy is?

“No!’ Landolt said. “I’d have to Google it.”

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