Beautiful Minds: Jazz Physicist

Friday, March 30, 2012

Harlander’s first degree was a bachelor in music from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He switched to physics, earning a master’s degree and doctorate in physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Photograph by Heidi Shub ’05.

Whether he’s building on a breadboard or creating at a keyboard, John Harlander has a talent for making brilliant connections.

The physics professor is one of the world’s leading experts on spatial heterodyne spectroscopy (SHS) — optical instruments created on a base called a breadboard. His lightmeasuring instruments have been launched on sounding rockets, installed on observatory telescopes, flown on the Space Shuttle and sent into Earth orbit on satellites.

Harlander also is a college-educated musician with serious jazz chops on a keyboard. He plays occasional Mondays at the Pioneer Place Veranda in St. Cloud, as part of the Monday Night Jazz collective.

His musical mind — trained to play complex chord progressions and synthesize notes into unified solos — served him well as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. There he collaborated with his mentor, Frederick Roesler, and others, to invent SHS. The first instrument combined proven and new technologies into an instrument that was small, robust and excellent at measuring diffuse light.

Since the 1992 publication of the paper “Spatial Heterodyne Spectroscopy for the Exploration of Diffuse Interstellar Emission Lines at Far-Ultraviolet Wavelengths,” Harlander has continually refined SHS instruments for customers such as the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

By 2005, Harlander was at the forefront of space spectroscopy. That year Roesler paid his protégé the ultimate compliment: “John is, in my estimation, the real world leader in SHS spectroscopy. While he was a graduate student with me he quickly caught on to the principles of spectroscopic instrumentation that I was able to provide, and after we fell upon the SHS concept, he quickly surpassed me in the detailed understanding of what turns out to be an elegant, yet difficult-to-understand technique. Now the major innovations come from him.”

Fast forward to 2012. Harlander is part of an international team of scientists competing to be one of two teams NASA will fund for next-generation satellite missions. His Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) team has a milliondollar grant to design an instrument that can investigate the dynamics of the Earth’s upper atmosphere by measuring subtle changes in the light emitted by atmospheric gasses.

“If ICON is selected by NASA for a satellite mission, St. Cloud State will contribute to it through the design, fabrication, pre-flight testing and data analysis supporting one of ICON’s primary instruments,” Harlander said.

NASA’s funding decision is expected in February 2013.

- Jeff Wood '81 '87 '95

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