Aug. 18, 1994
Vol. 14, No. 2

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    Henriksen: Give him wire and wood, and he just might hear Jupiter

    Kurt Henriksen, Laboratory Manager for the Physical Sciences Collegiate Division, arrives for work at 6 a.m. in his fire-engine red, turbo-charged Saab convertible. With his deep tan and long hair, Hawaiian-print shirt and blue jeans, his appearance offers a glimpse of his unconventional nature and seems more suited to his former career. Before coming to the University, Henriksen provided stage lighting for concerts by such big-name acts as Frank Sinatra and REO Speedwagon -- "and a lot of nobodies in between," Henriksen said, laughing.

    The distance between concert stage lighting and lab management is not as vast as it may seem. In the two years between these two divergent careers, Henriksen went back to school, at Moraine Valley Community College, to get an associate's degree in robotics. "The kind of robotics used on automobile assembly lines," Henriksen said, "but no one is doing that kind of automation around here."

    Finding it difficult to get a job in that field without relocating away from the Chicago area, Henriksen put in a stint as a photocopier technician at a company that contracts with the University. While working on campus, Henriksen applied for several jobs at the University before landing the one as lab manager. "After all, a telescope is really just a different kind of robot, so it was a natural progression," he said.

    As Henriksen strolls down the halls of his current domain, the Kersten Physics Teaching Center, he points out the window to the gadgets and dishes that adorn the building's roof.

    "There's my radio telescope," he said, indicating a 20-foot parabolic dish.

    "And there's my optical telescope," he said, pointing to a 12.5-inch telescope shielded within a domed enclosure.

    "And my heliostat," he said, referring to the telescope that he used to take pictures of the sun during the recent solar eclipse.

    "Oh, and there's something I rigged up to listen to Jupiter," he said, pointing at a wooden frame rigged with chicken wire. "It was too noisy to listen from here in the city. I should take that wood and wire down -- I could use it for something else."

    The Jupiter device attests to Henriksen's skill at jury-rigging complex machinery out of simple components, a skill that lends itself particularly well to the work he does at the University. Henriksen is always fixing something, always building something and always experimenting.

    Henriksen joined the University staff eight years ago, when he was hired by then-Chairman of Astronomy & Astrophysics Roger Hildebrand. "Roger liked my skills in machinery [Henriksen once ran his own machine shop], my mechanical abilities, my electronic knowledge and my technical background," he said.

    The job at first entailed preparing laboratory exercises for non-science majors taking Core courses in the physical sciences. His role has since expanded to include responsibility for maintaining and operating the telescopes, working with the Office of Special Projects, and, among many other things, helping professors prepare lecture demonstrations.

    "I can make a professor look like a real Mister Wizard," he said, laughing. Among other things, he has suspended Astronomy & Astrophysics Professor Edward "Rocky" Kolb from a lift, from which Kolb drops a feather and a bowling ball to demonstrate the laws of gravity.

    "I have a blast here," Henriksen said. "I work with the greatest bunch of professors -- they're a bunch of regular guys. And my job is very stress-free. There are times when I sweat bullets, but 99 percent of the time, it's very stress-free. I don't think I could ask for anything better."

    In one third-floor laboratory where Henriksen can often be found, several Macintosh computers, television monitors and video machines dominate the center of the room. It's all part of a Cook County Environmental Protection Agency monitoring station, operated cooperatively with the University, that continuously records the atmospheric levels of ozone, sulfur monoxide and dioxide, carbon monoxide and dioxide, and nitrous oxide. The station also monitors the intensity of ultraviolet light from the sun at three different wavelengths.

    Henriksen acquired the equipment for the University in a roundabout way. He was searching for an ozone monitor to be used by Geophysical Sciences Professor John Frederick several years ago, and in the course of his search he spoke to the director of the Illinois EPA. As luck would have it, the EPA was looking for a new site for its South Side ozone monitor. The EPA agreed to let Frederick use the data the machine collects in exchange for a long-term fixed location for the equipment. The data Henriksen helps collect are used not only by the EPA and by Frederick in his research, but also for an undergraduate course for non-science majors that Frederick teaches.

    "Everything that I do has some relationship to non-science-major undergraduate teaching," said Henriksen. In the "teaching food chain," as he calls it, Henriksen falls somewhere between the professors and the teaching assistants. In addition to the dozen TAs that he supervises, Henriksen also often has two to three undergraduates working directly for him.

    By 2 p.m., Henriksen has already put in a full eight-hour day. He drives the 40 miles south back home to a 10-acre farm in Peotone, Ill. He and his wife, Kathy, also have a weekend retreat on a lake near Shipshewana, Ind. He likes to mow his multi-acre lawn, restore old Porsches with his 18-year-old son, Gary, work on the car that belongs to his 20-year-old daughter, Amy, and operate his ham radio. A beagle named Baby is a faithful companion.

    Sometimes, Henriksen's job comes home, too. During the collision of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter, he was listening to the radio emissions from the planet with a radio telescope he had rigged up at the lake -- until it got hit by lightning. Once that telescope is repaired, Henriksen will be working with Astronomy & Astrophysics Chairman Robert Rosner on a long-term project to see how the cycles of the sun interfere with the propagation of radio waves.

    And at his farm, where he just recently moved, Henriksen plans to build an observatory. "Rich Kron [Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics and Director of Yerkes Observatory] permanently loaned me a 10-inch telescope and some really nice geared machinery that belonged to his father, and I'm going to build a domed observatory. The whole shebang," he said.

    "And I'm going to raise emus," he added. "Emus are native to Australia. They're strange-looking birds that look kind of like an ostrich. I don't think I'd feel comfortable raising anything normal."

    He winked, threw his head back and laughed.

    -- Diana Steele