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Stellar Dynamics: Jack Hills

Jack Hills is a theoretician whose primary interest has been in the field of stellar dynamics, and his M.A. thesis at K.U. dealt with the effect of binaries insofar as stellar collisions are concerned. He completed his thesis in 1966, but took the final oral exam in the summer of 1967.

He states in a recent e-mail to me that "Overall, I believe that I have only worked on very simple things that I have understood very thoroughly. I have applied some creativity to the projects, but I usually have worked well within the boundaries of my abilities and knowledge...I have over 140 publications on these routine subjects...I sometimes think of the Observational Astrophysics course that you taught. You asked us to choose one night a week. The rule was that if it was clear we were to come that night to help Frank Younger get the spectra for his thesis. Wayne Fullerton and I chose Friday night. It was clear for about twelve Fridays in a row (!), so Wayne and I ended up taking a very substantial fraction of the spectra that went into Younger's thesis. I also took some spectra of my own; I particularly like the Wolf Rayet stars. This led me to propose finding such stars by using an interference filter that would look at the light in one of their strong lines and compare it to photographs taken with a filter that would cover a nearby region without lines. We never carried out the idea, but others did decades later."

He had previously applied to the University of Michigan for admission to their astronomy graduate school, and had been accepted. After he had completed his course work he made a perfect score on the oral qualification exam (the last exam before one becomes a Candidate for the Ph.D.); this apparently caused some consternation among the examiners. He went on to complete his thesis in 1969. The thesis title was Dynamical Evolution of the Solar System (adviser Richard Sears), and it discussed the dynamical evolution of the solar system for various initial semimajor axes.

He further states: "I believe I discovered 'chaos,' but it was too confusing for me and no one (especially the referees) had any use for it thirty years ago. I got one Nature paper out of it, but I was thoroughly frustrated with the referees when I tried to publish a long version of the paper."

Jack worked at the Universities of Michigan and Michigan State for a few years, and then became a staff member in the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos. In recent years he has done research on the effect of asteroid-comet impacts on earth and techniques for detecting these objects, tidal breakup of stars by black holes, the structure of the interstellar medium, and the solar comet cloud (coined the phrase "comet shower" and proposed the "inner comet cloud"). He also worked on some of the basic physics involved in nuclear weapons, and for the last fifteen years has been a deputy group-leader in the Astrophysics Group of the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos. Presently (1998) he is the Chairman of the Division on Dynamical Astronomy, AAS.

He is married to the former Cynthia L. Zeller, a computer programmer and project leader at LANL, and they have one daughter age ten.

Finally, I must quote the last paragraph of his message to me: "Most of all I remember the atmosphere in the old observatory where the students were free to come and observe and to meet other enthusiasts. It allowed for bonding and long-term friendships among the students. The atmosphere was very good."