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Trinity Astronomy Professor is a Real Star

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Astronomy professor David Hough stands in front of a picture of the quasar he studies. Since 2000, the photo has been displayed at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City.

David Hough receives national award for contributions to the field and for reaching out to mentor young scientists 

by Susie P. Gonzalez

As a high school senior in South Plainfield, N.J., Trinity University professor David H. Hough was president of his local Astronomical League club based in Mountainside, sparking an interest in astronomy that has spanned more than four decades. 

Hough is a longtime mentor to the League’s National Young Astronomer program and has judged research papers and projects of high school students while also sharing a love for astronomy with amateurs who often have other careers but take their astronomy hobby seriously.

In mid-July, Hough received the Astronomical League Award during a national convention held in San Antonio. The award is presented to an amateur or professional who has “made worthwhile contributions to the science of astronomy on a national or international level.” He said the award recognizes his service to the field and outreach to other astronomers.

The Astronomical League – an umbrella group for 15,000 amateur astronomers who promote an interest in astronomy – has bestowed the award previously to Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered the planet Pluto; former director of the McDonald Observatory Frank Bash; and dozens of amateur astronomers.

Although professionals have been honored, the contributions of amateurs are extremely important since professionals cannot watch all the stars and star formations, Hough said. Observations by many amateurs have provided invaluable data to the field, and some amateurs have even invented new telescope designs, he added.

For 33 years, Hough has studied a quasar identified by the number 3C207, and found in the constellation Cancer (the Crab). The quasar is not visible to the naked eye, although in the summer months it is in the general direction of the sun.

“Some people would find doing this for a long time to be boring,” he said. “I never found it boring because I’m trying to answer some big scientific questions. As a scientist, you put in the work you need to do and patiently wait for the answers to come out.”

Quasars are galaxies with incredibly bright centers, and Hough said the question is: why are they so bright? The answer is: because they often have a hidden black hole that absorbs material. But, Hough said, his longtime research has revealed a plot twist. “People think black holes ‘eat’ everything,” he explained, “but some material gets channeled back out into space. We study the jetflows that go outward a million light-years beyond the quasar cores.” This summer, Trinity student Dallas Akins helped Hough with quasar research.

As material is propelled outward from a black hole back into space, the launched jetflows emit radio waves that can be measured by radio telescopes. “What you want to do is get close to the quasar, get to the core containing the black hole,” he said. “In studying 30-plus years of data, I’ve seen some surprising things, such as the acceleration of flows that aren’t expected, and winding twists of jetflows. We are still not sure why that is happening.”

Susie P. Gonzalez, director of public and media relations, can be reached at susie.gonzalez [at] trinity.edu.