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Pasco retiree, astrophysicist Gordon Hammond, still aims for precision, accuracy

When Gordon Hammond began high school in 1944 in Hampton, N.H., he told his guidance counselor he wanted to become an astrophysicist. But the small high school didn't have the right courses, as Hammond recalls, so the counselor sent him away — literally.

The next year, with a full scholarship, he enrolled in Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. That set in motion a stellar life that would range from studying dying stars to excelling on the racetrack and on the golf course — among other things.

But Hammond, now 77 and living in Zephyrhills with Dede, his wife of 23 years, had a bumpy ride to the stars. First came a partial scholarship to Brown University, which he had to turn down until he could earn enough money for the rest of his tuition. Thinking he could earn that money by joining the military, Hammond next found himself on the front lines of the Korean War for 14 months.

When he got back home, he still didn't have enough saved for Brown, so he went to the University of New Hampshire instead, graduating in 1958 with a major in physics.

But academics weren't enough to keep Hammond fully occupied, so he took up sharpshooting, captained the school rifle team, won intercollegiate All American status, and took the state indoor pistol championship in 1956.

Physics and competitive shooting may not seem to have any common ground, but they do, according to Hammond.

"Precision and accuracy," he says, "thread their way through all my vocations and avocations."

After graduating from college, Hammond began a 29-year career at the Naval Ordnance Lab in Silver Spring, Md., working as a research physicist in the explosives department.

It was during that stint that he won two Work Study grants at the University of Maryland, which led to an master of arts in 1962 and a doctorate in astronomy in 1974.

When his degrees were completed, Hammond looked around for something new to occupy his attention, and so he turned his eyes — not on the stars, but on the road.

He became a race car driver, and became so successful at it that he was named Rookie of the Year in 1978 (when he was 47) by the Washington, D.C., Region of the Sports Car Club of America. Five years later, they named him the Driver of the Year. More precision and accuracy.

Then, in November 1986, looking for yet another new frontier, he took an early retirement, got married and moved to Florida, where he joined the faculty at the University of South Florida for a few years, teaching the Seminar in Galaxy Formation as well as courses in astrophysics and cosmology.

In his new university surroundings, Hammond was able to continue his doctoral work on white dwarf stars, the name given to moderately sized stars that are very slowly dying.

After he had published a couple of articles on the subject from his doctoral dissertation and continued his studies at USF, he was recruited by a national team of astronomers who knew his work and wanted him to join their number.

Shortly afterward, the team applied for 30 hours of time on the then-new Hubble Space Telescope, which photographs the universe for data-hungry astronomers.

Their proposal, Hammond recalls, was "to determine the chemical composition and surface temperatures of white dwarf stars." When the team received word that their proposal had been accepted, they gave Hammond six of their prized Hubble hours to continue his work on a white dwarf he had been studying for a decade and a half by then, van Maanen 2.

As Hubble's raw data came down to Earth, it was relayed into Hammond's USF computer in 1993. It took five years of intense data analysis before Hammond's key findings on this particular solar mystery were finally published.

Once this work was completed, Hammond retired once again.

For the past decade, he has juggled a variety of pastimes, such as reading John Le Carre novels and Joseph Campbell's books on comparative mythology, leading discussion groups on religion and science, and now and then refereeing articles on white dwarfs for publications like The Astronomical Journal.

He also works diligently on his golf game, a passion he's had for something like 60 years, going back to the days when he was just about a scratch golfer.

These days Hammond is still a star on all the local courses.

In 2006, when he was 75, he shot a 75, and he has "shot his age" or below-each year since.

Gordon Hammond doesn't show any signs of slowing up, but says now: "when I die, I hope to visit van Maanen 2, get a bucket of stuff, and find out what it's really made up of."

Pasco retiree, astrophysicist Gordon Hammond, still aims for precision, accuracy 03/24/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 24, 2009 9:02pm]

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