Chester Martin Remembers Dr. Hal McAlister, Astronomer

Sunday, June 19, 2016 - by Chester Martin
Dr. Hal McAlister, then a student, with Dr. Karel Hujer, Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at UTC. They are standing with the 20.5” reflecting telescope of the Clarence T. Jones Observatory in Brainerd.
Dr. Hal McAlister, then a student, with Dr. Karel Hujer, Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at UTC. They are standing with the 20.5” reflecting telescope of the Clarence T. Jones Observatory in Brainerd.

Several years ago Southern California was all ablaze - again. This latest forest fire episode only got my attention because the famed Mt. Wilson Observatory was directly in the flames' path! As a one-time amateur astronomer I was immediately caught up in the significance of this story and followed it closely. It was only on the very edge of my memory that I recalled that Dr. Harold A. - or as he perfers Hal - McAlister - of Chattanooga - was Director of that great astronomical icon.

Its loss would be irreparable. The fire raged on for days and things looked really bad - until the brave fire-fighters of southern California (and elsewhere) were finally able to control the blazes and the fire abated. NBC News had been following these events on their Nightly News broadcasts, and News-anchor, Brian Williams, rushed to the scene to congratulate all who had participated in the dramatic rescue. Suddenly here was my former Clarence T. Jones Observatory friend on my TV screen - our first "meeting" in many, many years.

I recognized the name instantly! Those of you who have read my "Memories" articles from the start know that I grew up at the Clarence T. Jones Observatory, knowing Mr. Jones himself for several years before he died. Mr. Jones's enthusiasm for Astronomy was then taken up by another amateur Astronomer, Llewellyn Evans, who wanted nothing more than to continue Jones's "hands on" approach to the subject. Therefore some time later, in 1957, when the Russians blasted the first "Sputnik" artificial satellite into orbit, Evans organized an "Operation Moonwatch" here in Chattanooga. It was under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution and would provide data for scientific study in Washington. Hal McAllister joined that program in its earliest stages. Many a midnight of observation was spent on the observatory's observation deck roof, along with Evans's diverse team of older and younger associates.

This was the "Cold War" era and I had gone to the US Air Force, so could not participate. Young Hall McAlister - several years my junior - eagerly joined the group and soon was acquainted with all the observatory "regulars", and had the ear of both Dr. Karel Hujer of the University, and Llewellyn Evans, TVA's Chief Consulting Engineer, and amateur astronomer. If Evans was the head of the observatory's "Nuts and Bolts" department, then Dr. Karel Hujer was head of the philosophical department! Hujer had a Classical European background in Astronomy, having studied in Prague, Paris, and London. Hujer had the uncanny ability to inspire students to see beyond the purely mechanical and mundane things of the every day world, and was a great inspiration to McAlister. It was between Evan's practical mind, and Hujer's philosophical mind that Dr. Hal McAlister was, for life, molded.

*      *      *

Hal grew up in Brainerd and was one of the early graduates of Brainerd High School. Excelling in all fields, and with especially strong abilities in Math, he early settled on the goal of a career in Astronomy. His higher education took him first to our University of Chattanooga, which became the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga while he was in attendance there. When at UTC he met Susan P. Johnson (in Art111), and they later married in 1972, a year after he had gotten his Bachelor of Physics degree in 1971. From here he went on to the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, for both his Master's and Doctoral degrees, and was at all times an Honors student. He did post-doctoral research work at Kitt Peak National Observatory at Tucson, Arizona, 1975-'77.

Hal cannot emphasize enough how much our Dr. and Mrs. Karel Hujer influenced his early life. He declares that, "they were as influential in my life as my own parents, and I owe them a great deal". (I can personally attest to the Hujer's interest and generosity to many students).

Harold's employment record is much like his academic record - leading ever forward to a yet unclear goal. Like so many other things in his Chattanooga life, his employment carried some honorific weight, as when he and Rabbi Abraham Feinstein were selected as the first two male teachers ever employed by Girls' Preparatory School. Rabbi Feinstein taught Religion, and Hal McAlister taught Physics.

Hal gives his wife, Susan, much credit for helping him get his Doctorate in only four years compared with the five-seven years many PhD students require. Neither for Hal did things go in a straight line from graduation to a professorship at GSU. For it was then the "Cold War" era, and he was obligated to serve his military hitch as 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Defense Artillery Branch of the US Army. This only temporarily interrupted his progress in the field of Science, and the next step in that direction was the teaching position at Georgia State University where he started as an Assistant Professor in 1977. Very few people (like me) had any inkling of GSU's connection to Mount Wilson Observatory, and that our Dr. McAlister would one day be its Director (now Director Emeritus)! It would be hard for me to decide whether that job is more "honorific", or "hands-on". In Dr. McAlister's case, I guess it would be both!

Mount Wilson Observatory is located high in the mountains east of Los Angeles. When new, it was in an ideal location for telescopic observations, and is still world-famous for its historic assembly of telescopes and other astronomical instrumentation. For 30 years, its 100-inch telescope was the world's largest. Nowadays it suffers from light pollution, same as our Jones Observatory here in Brainerd. ONE advantage at Mt. Wilson, however, is that the layers of smog over Los Angeles, proper, actually insulate the observatory from drastic changes of temperature and humidity. Mt. Wilson Observatory had an established worldwide reputation among astronomers long before Dr. McAlister arrived on the scene. It was already noted for special branches of research, and no meeting of astronomers could be held without its mention. There are, besides, exciting NEW developments at Mt. Wilson which were brought about by our hands-on astronomer himself, Dr. McAlister. My absolute favorite of these is not called a "telescope", but an "array", for, sprawling over the sides of Mt. Wilson is a device known as the "CHARA Array", standing for GSU's "Center for High Angle Resolution Astronomy", which Hal founded in 1983. The Array is so sensitive a device that it can detect and describe an object the size of a NICKEL at a distance of 10,000 miles, making it the most powerful telescope in the world in terms of its ability to see detail!  WOW! In my day, not even the then-new 200-inch telescope at Mt. Palomar could resolve any star into anything more than a single, tiny "point of light". With this amazing CHARA Array we can actually study the surfaces of stars many millions of light-years away from Planet Earth!

Dr. McAlister says it took a full decade to get the funding for this project, followed by another full decade for its construction. I cannot give the GSU website as it is normally written, but can ask that you put the h-t-t-p-/-/, followed by w-w-w -. Sorry I cannot give it any more correctly than that, but it results in major PC problems when I do...

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that Dr. Hal McAlister IS the astronomer that Clarence T. Jones was longing to influence so many years ago, but the connection is unbroken, and the sequence would go something like this: Jones - Evans - Hujer - McAlister. And there is no doubt in my mind that those same names have spun off many another would-be astronomer as well. Harlowe Shapley and Bart Bok were two renowned astronomers of my day. Let us now add Hal McAlister to that list!

(Perhaps in a future story we might get Dr. Hal to give us an insider's view of how a great observatory works: who gets to photograph with the "big" scope tonight - and for how long. Or how they decide which of the several trillion stars will be measured in the first place. Inquiring minds want to know! And the average Chattanoogan is scratching his (or her) head wondering how Georgia State U. ever came into possession of Mount Wilson Observatory! So, we need you back, Dr. McAlister, and thank you for this first brief glimpse into your life!)

Dr. Hal and wife, Susan, have one daughter who is distinguished in her own field of Law. She is a partner in a major law firm in Atlanta.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )





Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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