Minnehaha Academy Blog

Brian J. Anderson '77

Posted by Nick Tofteland on Jun 3, 2019

BAndersonBrian Anderson is a life-long scientist, and a Christian. In today’s world, you don’t hear those two words together often. MA put him on the path that allowed him to take spirituality seriously and not throw it out. If he had not gone to MA, “I would have just rejected Christianity and said it was all hogwash.”  Looking back, Brian says “Everyone at MA walked the walk of Christian compassion which was a lesson to me that living with compassion is primary--doctrines are secondary.” While there is still a strong culture in our country that has a hard time taking spirituality seriously without rejecting science, or vice versa, for Brian these are two different sides of the same reality.

Faculty Make A Difference

“Rabbi” Swanson helped Brian mature in his religious and philosophical outlook. Brian didn’t like simple minded literalism, and Rabbi Swanson rejected it as well. This was crucial to Brian’s growing faith. Brian was really struggling with some things and Rabbi helped him with what he calls ‘the now.’  “How are you living ‘now’ and being freed by grace ‘now’ to be the kingdom ‘now’?” He was instrumental in being a reasoned voice, “which was very important to me.”

Harry Opel also had a strong influence on Brian, and he remembers many of the “admonitions” Harry would bring to the Singers. Two of his favorites: “People are not interested in why you can’t do it well. They aren’t interested in hearing you explain why you can’t do it perfectly. It needs to be done the very best way that you can,” and “You need to be proud of yourself...not a haughty pride, but you need to be proud in what you’ve achieved.” Harry did not want his students to accept mediocrity, but his admonitions were delivered in an uplifting and building way. His expectations were high, and students rose to the challenge.

Lifelong Learning

Brian majored in physics, mathematics, and religion at Augsburg University until 1982, then studied physics in graduate school at the University of Minnesota. After grad school, he taught physics at Augsburg for two years. While there, he worked with Professor Mark Engebretson, who was a partner with The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, MD on a new NASA mission to understand how the solar wind interacts with and accelerates charged particles to form Earth’s radiation belts. The Applied Physics Laboratory then hired Brian as a post-doc and he moved to Maryland in 1988.  After four years working on his post-doc he transitioned to staff and has been there since. The Applied Physics Laboratory is one of the nation’s leading centers designing, building, and operating specialized spacecraft for some of the nation’s most challenging missions including the first mission to put a spacecraft in orbit at the planet Mercury, the first mission to visit Pluto, and the first mission to fly close enough to the Sun to understand the physics that drives the solar wind and solar storms. Brian’s roles have included basic science research, instrument development and flight operations, and science team leadership. In one way or another, everything that he has done in his career has been related to the measurement of magnetic fields – and that all started in his first job after graduate school at Augsburg.

Career Pursuits

His title now is “Principal Professional Staff Physicist.” Brian has had opportunities that very few people, or even scientists, have, and they were the highlights of his career. He worked on the Mercury Surface Space Environment Geochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) mission to Mercury. Brian said, “I was a part of the first ever mission to send a spacecraft into Mercury orbit --and you only get to say that once!” Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun in our solar system and it preserves unique signatures of planetary formation, from over 4 billion years ago. This mission started in 2000, and the spacecraft was launched in 2004, arrived at Mercury in 2011 and ended operations in 2015. Final mission analysis continued until 2016. It included initial design, development, assembly and testing of the spacecraft, launch, operating and coordinating the thrusting and key flybys with Earth, Venus, and Mercury, before starting orbit around Mercury. The treasure trove of data on the surface geology, composition, topography, magnetic field, and mass distribution have revealed things we would never have guessed: that volcanic flows once poured over nearly a quarter of the surface, that some ‘fresh’ surface deposits can’t withstand the intense sunlight and actually waste away leaving pock-marked terrain behind, that the magnetic field is not centered on the planet, and that there are cold areas deep in craters near the poles where water ice has collected and remains to this day.

Brian’s initial role in the MESSENGER mission was as instrument scientist for the magnetometer, the instrument that measures magnetic fields. In addition to the magnetometer, they needed someone to help orchestrate the overall science observation planning for the mission, so he also stepped into that role.  He worked with “some really amazing people” to develop the entire observation plan for all the instruments once in orbit at Mercury. He worked with all the scientists and engineers who were designing the mission, developing the spacecraft and navigating the mission. “The technology was just incredible! It was such a privilege to have the opportunity to work with those folks.”

 Brian’s current work is his second highlight. There is a constellation of 70 satellites in Earth’s orbit called the ‘Iridium Constellation’ that was originally launched in the late 90’s for satellite telephones. The satellites carry magnetometers that sense the electric currents responsible for the aurora, which allows scientists to track how the Earth’s solar wind interaction varies and how dynamic it is during geo-magnetic storms. This is one of the principal ways that we learn more about, and are better able to predict what is going to happen, during a geo-magnetic storm. It affects a lot of practical things, including GPS navigation, satellite drag, and communications, but the highlight for him is to use these 70 satellites that were not intended to do science and figure out how to convince the commercial company to share the data, devise new ways of processing and displaying the information the data contained, and sustain a basis of funding from the National Science Foundation. The result of over 20 years of work is a new resource for the entire worldwide community of scientists providing a new way to track and understand the effects of solar storms on Earth.

Brian is proud of this work and making these things ‘happen’ in the way Harry Opel would encourage; not a haughty pride, but “something I can properly and appropriately take credit for.” Brian believes that “one definition of career success is if you can say ‘without the effort of a particular individual, this would not have happened’.”

To The Students

What is Brian’s advice for students at MA? “Aim high and follow your strengths.  Do it with a glad heart.”

Topics: Alumni Stories

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