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Brookhaven National Laboratory

Olness remembered as brilliant scientist, education advocate

John Olness with his wife Margaret. Photo from Richard Olness

He did what he loved, and was loved for it.

John William Olness, a nuclear physicist and a Long Island resident since 1961, died on Feb. 15 at the age of 85.

Olness is survived by his wife Margaret, their sons Robert, Richard, Frederick and Christopher and their daughter Kristin.

“He was a creative parent,” son Richard said in a phone interview. “I wouldn’t trade him for the world.”

Olness was born in 1929, in Saskatchewan, Canada, while his father was teaching at a junior college. The family returned to their farm in northern Minnesota when John was young, and that is where he grew up.

Olness received a doctorate in nuclear physics from Duke University in 1957 where he met Margaret. He moved to Long Island from Dayton, Ohio, in 1961, then he began his career at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1963 where he stayed until his retirement in 2000 after 37 years of service. John and Margaret married in 1958 and moved to Stony Brook in 1968.

John Olness poses for a photo with his family and family friends. Photo from Richard Olness
John Olness poses for a photo with his family and family friends. Photo from Richard Olness

“He got to do what he wanted,” Margaret said in a phone interview. “He was one of the lucky people who loved what he did for a living. You can’t beat that.”

“John worked with many of the visiting scientists who came to BNL to use the facilities, including Sir Denys Wilkinson (Oxford University), D. Allan Bromley (Yale and, later, science adviser to President George H.W. Bush) and future Space Shuttle astronaut Joseph Allen,” son Robert said of his father’s time at BNL, in an email.

Margaret identified her husband’s passions as physics first and music second.

In his leisure time Olness was a Little League baseball coach; and a founding member and trombone player with the Memories of Swing, a big band that performed around Long Island. He also served as a vice president of the Three Village school board in 1975-76. Kristin said that his desire to be on the school board was in large part to fight for the budgets of the music, sports and arts programs that are seemingly always the first to go when money gets thin.

Olness loved baseball, tennis and basketball, and often spent hours on the phone discussing the Detroit Tigers baseball team with his father, who lived in Michigan. He also played football in high school and college, Margaret said.

Olness was a supportive father and husband, according to Margaret. Their children have gone on to enjoy rewarding careers in wide-ranging walks of life, thanks in no small part to that parental support.

Frederick is a professor and physics department chair at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas; Robert is a major in the Army Reserve, awaiting his next deployment; Kristin has just finished a year on Broadway in “Cabaret,” and was also a member of the cast in the show’s 1998 revival; Richard is an actuary for the Department of Defense; and Christopher is a professional trombonist on Broadway currently playing in “On the Town,” the hit musical comedy.

“Dad put emphasis on education, and he and Mom supported us in exploring the arts and recreational sports,” Richard said in an email. “And in the later years, he encouraged us each to find a career we would enjoy.”

A memorial service will be held for John Olness on Thursday, July 2, at Setauket Presbyterian Church.

Above, Morgan May at the LSST site in Cerro Pachón, Chile, last month. The dryness of the site is essential for good viewing. Water vapor in the air causes stars to twinkle, or to have blurred images. Only the heartiest small cactus can survive at this elevation and in this low moisture. The LSST site is on the southern edge of the driest desert in the world, in the middle of 85,000 acres of land which is kept undeveloped to avoid light pollution for astronomy. Photo from Morgan May

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s … billions of galaxies. Impossible to see with the naked eye, only vaguely visible through good telescopes, these galaxies will come to life in a way never seen before when the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope starts providing images from its mountaintop home in Chile in 2020.

Before this technological wonder is completed, people like Morgan May, a physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, are testing to make sure this ambitious project provides clear and accurate information.

Recently, May and his colleagues at BNL conducted two tests of the telescope.

The LSST will have 200 individual silicon sensors that are the film in the 3.2 gigapixel digital camera. The process of making the sensors is imperfect, with the sensors starting out as molten mass.

Impurities or variation in the temperature can cause imperfections that look like tree rings around a central circle, which create electric fields that can cause a distortion in the image.

“Because we are trying to measure things at a much higher level of precision, the tree rings were a source of great concern,” said May, who receives funding from the Department of Energy’s Office of Science-Cosmic Frontier Research.

They found that these radial imperfections were much smaller than in previous detectors, which was already a benefit to the project. Looking at the likely actual measurements using these sensors, May and his colleagues found that these tree rings had a small effect on the data, which was a pleasant surprise, but one that took some time to prove.

In another test, May, working with Columbia University graduate student Andrea Petri, examined whether differences in the sizes of the three billion pixels in the camera might also cause problems interpreting the information.

May and Yuki Okura, a postdoctoral fellow from Japan’s RIKEN laboratory who is stationed at the RIKEN-BNL Research Center, measured how much light each pixel picked up in the detector. While the variation was small, they weren’t sure whether it was small enough to keep from causing problems with the data.

The team simulated a night sky. Once they gathered the information they would have collected from these slight pixel differences, they compared their simulated image to their original.

Fortunately for the scientists, this effect also proved manageable and won’t create confusion.

May and Okura’s work “did have a good outcome,” said Sam Aronson, director of the RIKEN BNL Research Center. “They showed that the sensor imperfections measured on the LSST sensors will not affect LSST’s science objectives.”

While May is relieved the telescope passed these two tests, he continues to search for other potential problems with this revolutionary telescope.

“I am confident the LSST is going to be successful in its goals, but we have to work very hard to follow every possible issue and resolve it,” he said.

As a part of the LSST Dark Energy Science Collaboration, May said his primary research goal is to answer the question, “What is dark energy?” May said he will be studying subtle features of enormous amounts of information that will become available. May will be researching a force that causes the universe to expand faster and faster, rather than contract.

Until the 1930s, everyone thought the universe was contracting. Edwin Hubble, for whom the Hubble Space Telescope is named, was the first to observe this expansion. It is as if a ball thrown in the air slows down as expected and then accelerates away from Earth, May said. One well-regarded hypothesis is that the universe is filled with something called dark energy that causes a gravitational force that repels rather than attracts.
Once the telescope goes online, the information will become widely available.

“We’re going to make our data public to the everyone in the United States,” said May. It will be possible for “children in high school or even elementary school to have their own galaxy or supernova.”

Born in Brooklyn, May lives on Long Island with his wife Dana Vermilye. The couple have a 23-year old son, Michael, who is in medical school and a daughter, Julia, who is a high school sophomore.

May sees cosmology and astrophysics as a new frontier in science. “It’s an area where great discoveries are being made,” he said. “If you are interested in science as an observer or a career, I would say [it’s] really in the forefront.”

Shawn Serbin. Photo by Bethany Helzer

While judging a book by its cover may be misleading, judging a forest by looking at the top of the canopy can be informative. What’s more, that can be true even from satellite images.

An expert in a field called “remote sensing,” Shawn Serbin, an assistant scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, takes a close look at the spectral qualities of trees, gathering information that generates a better understanding of how an area responds to different precipitation, temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Serbin is “on the cutting edge” of this kind of analysis, said Alistair Rogers, a scientist at BNL who collaborates with and supervises Serbin. “He’s taking this to a new level.” Serbin and Rogers are a part of the BNL team working on a new, decade-long project funded by the Department of Energy called Next Generation Ecosystem Experiments — Tropics.

The multinational study will develop a forest ecosystem model that goes from the bedrock to the top of the forest canopy and aims to include soil and vegetation processes at a considerably stronger resolution than current models.

The NGEE Tropics study follows a similar decade-long, DOE-funded effort called NGEE-Arctic, which is another important biological area. Serbin is also working on that arctic study and ventured to Barrow, Alaska, last summer to collect field data.

Shawn Serbin. Photo by Bethany Helzer
Shawn Serbin. Photo by Bethany Helzer

Working with Rogers, Serbin, who joined BNL last March, said his group will try to understand the controls on tropical photosynthesis, respiration and allocation of carbon.

Serbin uses field spectrometers and a range of airborne and satellite sensors that measure nitrogen, water, pigment content and the structural compound of leaves to get at a chemical fingerprint. The spectroscopic data works on the idea that the biochemistry, shape and other properties of leaves and plant canopies determine how light energy is absorbed, transmitted and reflected. As the energies and biochemistry of leaves changes, so do their optical properties, Serbin explained.

“Our work is showing that spectroscopic data can detect and quantify the metabolic properties of plants and help us to understand the photosynthetic functioning of plants, remotely, with the ultimate goal to be able to monitor photosynthesis directly from space,” Serbin said.

NGEE-Tropics, which received $100 million in funding from the DOE, brings together an international team of researchers. This project appealed to Serbin when he was seeking an appointment as a postdoctoral student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “It’s one of the reasons I was happy to come to BNL,” Serbin said. “To have the opportunity to collaborate closely with so many top-notch researchers on a common goal is incredibly rare.”

The tropics study includes scientists from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Pacific Northwest national laboratories and also includes researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, NASA and numerous groups from other countries.

In the first phase of this 10-year study, scientists will design pilot studies to couple improvements in computer modeling with observations in the tropics. These early experiments will include work in Manaus, Brazil, to see how forests react to less precipitation. In Puerto Rico, researchers will see how soil fertility impacts the regrowth of forests on abandoned agricultural land.

Serbin expects to work in all three regions. He plans to do some pilot work early on to identify how to deal with the logistics of the experiments.

“These are designed to ‘shake out the bugs’ and figure out exactly how we can do what we need to do,” he said.

Serbin lives in Sound Beach with his partner Bethany Helzer, a freelance photographer whose work includes book covers and who has been featured in Elle Girl Korea and Brava Magazine. The couple has two cats, Bear and Rocky, whom they rescued in Wisconsin. Helzer has joined Serbin on his field expeditions and has been a “trooper,” contributing to work in California in which the couple endured 130-degree heat in the Coachella Valley.

“Having her along has indeed shown that when you are in the field and focused on the work, you can miss some of the beauty that surrounds you,” Serbin said.

Serbin said the NGEE-Tropics work, which has involved regular contact through Skype, email and workshops, will offer a better understanding of a biome that is instrumental in the carbon cycle. “Our work will directly impact future global climate modeling projections,” he said.

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