Astronomy department chairman gives up post

Jennifer Niemela

The year Tom Jones retired will be remembered for more than the change in chairmanship in the Department of Astronomy.
This year marks the department’s centennial. The department broke away in 1897 from the mathematics faculty.
Jones, who has been chairman of the Department of Astronomy since 1981, announced this month that he will step down in July. After taking a year-long sabbatical, he will resume teaching in the department.
“We’ll miss him as chairman,” said astronomy professor Terry Jones — no relation. “He had an unusually long chairmanship. The chairmanship isn’t something people grab for; they do it out of service to the department.”
The departing chairman said that he has seen major advancements in astronomy during his 16 years as chairman. One of them is the Hubble Space Telescope, which allows astronomers to view other galaxies without the distortion of ground-based telescopes.
“A handicap for astronomers is that most of what you study, you can’t get your hands around,” Jones said. “There have been advancements of computational tools for recreating formations of the universe in the last few years that make it really exciting to be in astronomy.”
Jones said that during his tenure in the astronomy department, the science has been revolutionized by technology that allows astronomers to “create nature.”
“We’re getting to the point where astronomy is almost completely done with computers,” he said. “The romantic myth of an astronomer with his eye in the eyepiece isn’t accurate anymore.”
Jones studies computational astrophysics — in which computers simulate astronomical objects for study — and SuperNovae, as which he explained “stars that get old and explode.”
The high point of his research came in 1984, when the University began making a commitment to studying astronomy with high-powered computers on which he could recreate models of the universe, Jones said. This information was eventually used to study the effects of cosmic radiation, which makes up one-third of the radiation on Earth.
“That was the benchmark of my career,” he said. “I had been feeling frustrated at not having the tools to further my research, but the higher technology really rejuvinated my enthusiasm.”
Jones said that while the environment of state-of-the-art technology is stimulating, he’s looking forward to a less stressful existence after he retires from the chairmanship.
“The first few department chairs served for life,” Jones said of the astronomy department’s beginnings in the early 20th century. “I guess life was simpler back then.”