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Michael Beechert’s Guide to the Stars: Physics Professor Mary Hudson

Dartmouth has a wealth of experienced professors who lead their respective research fields, while also working closely with students — inspiring them in the classroom and leading them in laboratory environments. And while at Dartblog we talk frequently about problems that need to be fixed at the College, there are still many bright spots. Our professors deserve more recognition for their achievements. As such, this is one of a series of posts that shines a spotlight on the best professors in Hanover:

Mary Hudson.jpgHow convenient that this series is titled the Guide to the Stars! Not only is Mary Hudson, the Eleanor and A. Kelvin Smith Distinguished Professor of Physics, an academic star in her own right, but her current research is also specifically focused on the consequences of the ball of flaming gas that we all know as the Sun.

It may be difficult for someone with a non-physics background to fully appreciate much of her body of work, but a review of her scholastic career, publishing record, and other professional activities leads to the clear conclusion that Professor Hudson is an example of the type of excellence that is to be found throughout the ranks of the Dartmouth faculty.

For Hudson, physics was something akin to a lifetime calling. Her interest in the field is partially due to Walt Disney, of all people, who, starting in 1954, aired a weekly television special on ABC in return for money that would be used to build Disneyland. Hudson cites one segment in particular, titled “Our Friend the Atom,” as sparking a personal desire to understand the physical world. The spark was strong enough to last through adolescence, as Hudson went on to graduate from UCLA with a major in physics in 1969 before completing her Ph.D., also at UCLA, in 1974.

While in Los Angeles, Hudson developed a fascination with space physics, which the University of Iowa Department of Physics defines as “the study of everything above Earth’s atmosphere, up to the edge of the solar system.” A two-year stint at The Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit, federally funded research and development center that acts as a technical and scientific advisor to organizations like the Air Force, the National Reconnaissance Office, and NASA, gave Hudson the opportunity to participate in cutting-edge research that would help lay the foundation for her future career as an academic and a scientist.

After completing her doctorate, Hudson moved up the coast to Berkeley, where she spent ten years as a researcher. She built up and led a research group that received funding from NASA, the NSF, and NOAA. In 1984, Hudson made the move to Dartmouth (along with her husband, fellow space physicist Bill Lotko of Thayer), where she joined a department that had, prior to her arrival, no faculty who specialized in space physics. She has been in the College’s Physics department ever since, including a stint as chair between 1996 and 2004.

Capturing the aim of Hudson’s voluminous research (an h-index of 41 and 6645 citations) in one sentence is an exercise in futility, but perhaps the following question gets to the heart of things: How does the Sun’s behavior affect the part of space located closest to Earth? The Sun, as you may or may not remember from your school-going days, is by no means a static body. In fact, it keeps quite busy. Streams of charged particles, collectively known as “solar wind,” are emitted from the Sun and travel through space to bombard everything in the vicinity, including our planet. Fortunately, we are protected from solar wind by the Earth’s magnetic field, which manages to trap a large number of charged particles in zones referred to as the Van Allen radiation belts.

In addition to working with experiments relating to these radiation belts, Hudson has studied how more dramatic solar behavior like solar flares have impacted weather patterns. Imagine: A mass of particles and energy is suddenly emitted from the sun in a flare and moves at tremendous velocity down towards us. What happens in its wake? Hudson would be the person to ask.

Currently, Hudson spends most of her time as an Affiliate Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research High Altitude Observatory in Boulder, Colorado, where she is supervising four Ph.D. students in addition to her normal duties. Mentorship is extremely important for Hudson, who has used her position and connections in Boulder to provide research opportunities in space physics for Dartmouth undergraduates and graduate students alike. Her work in the classroom in Hanover, which has most recently included courses such as “Introduction to Space Physics,” “Relativistic Electrodynamics,” and a first-year seminar called “Space Politics,” have inspired many a student to pursue this path.

Addendum: For the scientifically-inclined and/or ambitious, here is a video of Professor Hudson discussing, um, Modeling the radiation belt electron response to CME-driven storms:

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