“When I admire the wonders of the sunset or the beauty of the moon, my soul expands in the worship of the creator.” —Mahatma Gandhi
The beauty of the moon or the wonder of a sunset is often captured in photos and poetic words. But the only star that we can study “up close” is so much more than a pretty picture.
It’s the life work of Todd Hoeksema ’78 and others. And even with everything we now know, “we are only scratching the surface,” said Hoeksema.
While Hoeksema had an interest in astronomy as a youngster, his career in this field began inauspiciously. After majoring in physics and mathematics at Calvin, he went on to graduate school at Stanford University in applied physics because there didn’t seem to be any jobs in astronomy.
But even before he arrived at Stanford, he received an unexpected call from researchers at the school’s solar observatory, asking if he’d like a summer job. Nearly 40 years later he is still there as a senior research scientist at the Hansen Experimental Physics Lab, focusing on the sun and how it affects Earth. Hoeksema and his team have contributed much to the body of knowledge we now have about the sun.
Hoeksema finds solar physics interesting because of the practical effect on our lives, he said. There are the rudimentary things we know about the sun: “It is the only star known to grow vegetables; the sun comes up every day and gives us night and day; it gives us seasons,” said Hoeksema. “It is fundamental in determining what our life is like.”
But there are other aspects to the sun that we know also affect life on Earth. “The sun is active,” said Hoeksema. “Solar explosions can distort Earth’s magnetic field, which affects power flow in the electric grid. Radiation from solar storms can cause damage to satellites and components on Earth. Since everything depends on power, we would like to be able to predict hazardous space weather.”
These solar flares and coronal mass ejections “hurl billions of tons of material into space, and sometimes it hits Earth. We would like to know when it’s going to arrive and how severely it will hurt us,” said Hoeksema.
Hoeksema is involved in finding answers to these questions but also in setting a path for future study in heliophysics.
In his four decades of studying the sun, Hoeksema has been amazed by God’s design. “Looking at creation really gives a Christian a deeper sense of awe,” he said. “What we, as Christians, have to understand is that what we think we know about faith and what we think we know about science is our perception.
“What I do know is that nothing in the physical world can contradict the scriptures,” he said. “Our understanding can be flawed, and that is something we struggle with.”
Calvin provided a fundamental base for his lifelong study, though, Hoeksema said. “At Calvin I saw people who believed very strongly but still questioned,” he said. “Calvin provided mentors who integrated the intellectual and the spiritual. Calvin gave me a perspective on that.
“How you understand God’s creation affects your motivation,” he said. “It’s the same magnetic field whether you are a Christian or not, but what makes it even more interesting is seeing how it contributes to God’s glory. Faith informs your view of how the world should work.”