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Faculty Profile: Jeffrey Kuhn

by Robert Joseph, Faculty Chair, Institute for Astronomy

Jeff Kuhn says he "stumbled into solar physics" while trying to measure the Sun's oblateness (flattening at its poles) and understand its apparent implications for Einstein's theory of general relativity. Kuhn did his PhD at Princeton with one of the great experimental physicists of the twentieth century, Robert Dicke. A decade earlier, Dicke had done a clever experiment that showed the Sun had an oblate shape, and this shape required reinterpretation of one of the three classical tests of general relativity. After receiving his doctorate, Kuhn remained at Princeton for four years as an assistant professor of physics and then took a position at Michigan State.

At Michigan State, Kuhn became interested in the fundamental problem of the 11-year sunspot cycle and how it can be regulated over the entire surface of the Sun, which is 10,000 times larger than the surface area of Earth. He participated in several space experiments and eclipse expeditions, and in building the instrumentation required for them. After building several instruments for the National Solar Observatory (NSO), he spent five years at NSO, located at Sacramento Peak, New Mexico, then returned to Michigan State, from which he was lured to the IfA in 1998.

Kuhn is associate director for Maui, and he has worked tirelessly to rebuild the solar astronomy program, which is centered largely on Maui and Haleakala. He has been spectacularly successful. The IfA now has a solar faculty of five and a steady stream of visiting solar astronomers. The decision to site the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope on Haleakala and the ground-breaking for the new 15,000-square-foot IfA facility on Maui are manifestations of Kuhn’s efforts.

Kuhn continues to do research on his first love, gravity and dynamics in astronomical objects, as well as to study the fundamental processes in the Sun. His major interest recently is the solar corona, the extremely hot gas on the exterior of the Sun (see "Measuring the Corona's Magnetic Field"). It is from the corona that flares vastly larger than Earth explode and send particles out into the solar system. All this is controlled by solar magnetic fields that are very difficult to measure, and Kuhn is working to develop new tools and techniques to crack this problem.

Kuhn is a marathon runner and enjoys playing duplicate bridge. He and his wife Janeen have two children, Joel and Jill.