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John Harlander
Jazz physicist

John Harlander, physics professor and inventor

John Harlander, physics professor and inventor.

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 2013. Harlander is part of an international team of scientists chosen to study Earth's atmosphere via an NASA satellite mission to be launched in 2017 from Goddard Space Flight Center, northeast of Washington D.C.

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