New professorship goes to physics prof. LaBelle

by Sam Rauschenfels | 10/12/10 10:00pm

Editor's Note: This is the first installment in a four-part series profiling professors who were recently awarded endowed chairs.

Though he had long studied electromagnetics, physics and astronomy professor James LaBelle said he had often suspected that there was something more than meets the eye about the Earth's radio emissions.

"It's always been in the back of my mind, you know, could it be possible to see these really strong radion emissions from the surface of the Earth?" he said.

For his work studying Earth's radio emissions, LaBelle has been honored with the Lois L. Rodgers Professorship, one of the College's new endowed chair positions. Along with LaBelle's research group, Space Physics Experiment, in May he discovered that the radio waves emitted by the Earth can be observed on the Earth's surface, as well as from space.

Since the discovery in the 1970s that the Earth emits radio waves, it had been thought that these waves could only be observed from space, LaBelle said. By comparing data his research group obtained from ground-based receivers with satellite data provided by his colleague Roger Anderson, a research scientist at the University of Iowa, it was discovered that the Earth's radio emissions could in fact be observed on the surface at the same time they were observed by satellite.

According to LaBelle, these results were quite surprising, as everyone had accepted the fact that you could not observe the radio emissions on the Earth's surface.

"People have to think differently now," he said.

LaBelle said he considers this finding important because it offers new insight into the environment humans live in, as well as the environment in which their satellites reside. Learning more about the Earth's environment, both on the ground and in the upper atmosphere, is an important task, according to LaBelle.

"That's what motivates men ... I want to know more about the Earth, more about the Earth's environment," he said.

This project is not the only thing on LaBelle's plate, however.

"He certainly has a lot of projects going on all at once ... it's more like five different projects all running concurrently," said David McGaw, a research engineer for the Space Physics Experiment.

McGaw, who has worked with LaBelle since the late 1990s, described him as "good to work with," addine that his recognition as an endowed chair is well deserved.

LaBelle teaches undergraduate courses on top of his research, splitting his time between both tasks, as he said all Dartmouth professors do.

"We're very dedicated to both our research and our teaching ... I intend to continue that," he said.

LaBelle is teaching two sections of Physics 13 this term and will be teaching a freshman seminar for the first time in a decade this coming Spring term. He said that he intends the seminar to be "a critique of Futurism and different views of the future."

As for future research, LaBelle said that his discovery has opened the door for further study and analysis, which he and his team will begin to address by making more observations in more locations.

Receiving the endowed chairmanship was very gratifying, LaBelle said, and it will help him in both facets of being a Dartmouth professor.

"It leaves me inspired to try to do more research of very high quality, and to do more teaching of very high quality," he said.

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