In the midst of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States competed in virtually every arena, each power vying for the political, economic and military advantage. Yet in 1976, the field of planetary science was united by the efforts of Professor of Geological Science Jim Head, who helped bridge the gap between the rivalling states. At the urging of then University President Howard Swearer and others, Head organized a joint conference between Brown, the Russian Space Research Institute and the Vernadsky Institute, hoping to share scientific progress between the two countries. The conference has continued every year since — even amidst current tension between the countries — and recently included China as well, holding annual sessions in both Moscow, Russia and Houston.
The conference is only one way that Head has connected scientists and inspired those in the field. In his more than four decades at the University, Head has closely collaborated with NASA, taught thousands in his classes and helped secure the role of science in the nation.
Blasting off from Brown
Following the completion of his undergraduate degree from Washington and Lee University, Head enrolled at Brown for graduate school. He was inspired by Professor Thomas Mutch to pursue planetary science, a field which was relatively unexplored and crucial during the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Head found his first job after graduate school by chance, flipping through job openings in book. He stumbled upon a listing for NASA, which read, “Do you want to think your way to the moon and back?” Head helped select the moon landing sites for the Apollo missions and trained astronauts while there, earning him an Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal from the agency in 1971.
After a few years at NASA, Head moved back to Brown in 1973 and became an assistant professor. Despite leaving NASA, Head maintained strong ties with the organization and continues to do so to this day. Every year, Head trains astronauts in geology — what he refers to as his introductory class — in the span of a few days to a week. Though the class is typically hosted in Houston, Head has brought the trainees to Brown and given them valuable lessons on College Hill.
Head has stayed in touch with dozens of Russian and American scientists at space institutes and connected them to others at the University, some of whom have proven invaluable to research on campus. He brought John Mustard, professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences, on a trip to Russia early in his career, introducing him to scientists there and making connections that Mustard utilized for more than 20 years of research. “He’s really generous with his time and connections. He helps people get up the ladder,” Mustard said.
Head has also brought many prominent speakers to campus, including David Scott, a former astronaut for the Apollo missions, and Maria Zuber, vice president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Head’s former student. Greg Hirth, professor and chair of earth, environmental and planetary sciences, said that “There’s a high level of science that occurs because of his legacy in the department.”
Head remains an active researcher and educator today. “He’s a rockstar scientist,” Mustard said. According to his Google Scholar page, he has co-authored more than 100 papers in the last four years alone on topics ranging from volcanoes on Venus to water on Mars. He advises and teaches graduate students every year, discussing topics including research in difficult climates such as Antarctica. Though the course will be taught by Mustard this fall, Head has taught GEOL 0050: “Mars, Moon and the Earth” for several years — by his estimate, about 6,000 undergraduates have completed the course.
Unofficially, he remains a steadfast leader within the department. Though they barely collaborate on research, Hirth said that he and Head regularly discuss new projects and ideas. Head is often the first one in the office in the morning — when Hirth arrives at 6:30, he is usually there already.
A visit to Head’s office reveals both his extensive history in the field and his personable character. He has collected dozens of trinkets and toys from his experience and always gives presents to children who visit him. Mustard’s six-year-old son rushes to Head’s office when visiting. “His first instinct is to go knock on his door,” Mustard said. Children have left thank you notes all over his office for gifts given throughout the years, he added.
More prominently, hundreds of craft beer bottles line the walls of his office. Head is a “beer connoisseur,” as described by Hirth, and will occasionally bring his own personal bottles to department events when the supply does not meet his standard.
Head has always and continues to advocate for scientific research. In addition to serving on national committees and lobbying on behalf of the scientific community, he’s a “great strategic thinker,” Mustard said, peppering questions upon faculty in the department and urging them to consider their work in a broader context.