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The Job of Discovery
Henry Everitt Emphasizes the World of Questions

When Wernher von Braun and his research team would test fire the Saturn V, the entire town of Huntsville, Ala., would shake, and the roar of the rocket engines would make a small boy’s heart beat a little faster. America was in a race to the moon, and everybody was pumped up, most especially Henry Everitt, who grew up in the 1960s in the shadow of Redstone Arsenal. “I was completely enthralled by all of it,” says Everitt, who today holds a doctorate in physics from Duke University and is a senior scientist at the Army’s Aviation and Missile Research, Development, and Engineering Center at Redstone Arsenal.

“Saturn V was America’s first nonmilitary rocket, designed specifically to propel men into space,” Everitt explains. All the other rockets in the U.S. arsenal, like the Atlas and Titan, were built to shoot warheads. “During the early days of the space program,” he says, “we simply took the warheads off and replaced them with manned capsules. But when we embarked on the grand challenge to put a man on the moon, we knew those old rockets would not be adequate to leave Earth’s orbit. That’s why we developed the multistage Saturn V rocket system.”

As a boy, Everitt was very aware that the most brilliant rocket scientists in the world were working almost around the corner from his home. Many of his friends’ fathers worked at NASA with von Braun and were instrumental in building the technology to reach the moon. His own dad was an engineer at NASA, and most of the people who lived in Huntsville were associated with the Arsenal. “I grew up surrounded by science and technology, and I had no doubt what I wanted to do with my life,” Everitt says.

Everitt uses his recollections of that exciting time in American history to teach young people that the thrill of discovery is still open to them through careers in science and engineering. “It wasn’t hard to convey that message in the 1960s because we had the national will — and a bit of a national threat — to work together to achieve great things through technology. Today, there is no grand national adventure like the space race to enthrall kids.” But there are still great questions.

When talking to young people, Everitt explains that the exhilaration of science is in the questions it lets you address. “People get Nobel Prizes because they thought to ask a question nobody else thought to ask. Take, for example, Einstein: He came up with the theory of relativity because he wondered what it would be like to sit on a photon and travel at the speed of light. Often the hardest part — but also the most rewarding part — is knowing what questions to ask; what problems to work on.”

Everitt emphasizes that there are still a great many unknowns in our universe just waiting to be discovered by future scientists and engineers. “Cosmology is a relatively mature field, but there are still great challenges. Science is often about building new instruments to look at things nobody else has ever seen before. Better instruments have allowed us to challenge what we thought we understood.”

Often, the right question to ask is: Can I measure this? As a physicist whose main research interest is spectroscopy, Everitt asks this question every day in his quest to understand matter. “I have all kinds of spectroscopic tools to measure different types of materials, whether they are semiconductors, organic polymers, gas phase molecules, or single atoms.” Basically, Everitt’s research team blasts a material with a very intense short pulse of laser light, knocking the material out of equilibrium and exciting it to emit its own light. “Spectroscopy allows us to figure out which materials are more efficient at emitting light. Our colleagues use the knowledge we develop to make better materials for such things as aircraft wings.”

There is so much out there yet to discover, Everitt says.  “It’s shocking how much we thought we understood in the 1990s that we don’t understand now.” In other words, there is a world of discovery awaiting the next generation, but the right questions will go unasked unless we have scientists and engineers to wonder about them.

“Going to the moon was a well-defined problem. Great problems exist still, but they are not getting as much attention as the space race did. As a kid, I didn’t have to be reached out to; I was lucky to be swimming in an environment where science and engineering were celebrated.”

Everitt believes he’s on a mission to help young people get excited about science and engineering and to realize there are still great questions to be asked. He does this as an adjunct professor at Duke University, advising and mentoring graduate students. He also works with college and high-school students, encouraging them to carry on the American tradition of asking the great questions of our time.

“I tell them it’s uplifting to feel like you are part of something important, that you are doing something that contributes to humanity and that will live beyond you,” Everitt says. “Solving grand challenges are the big things we can do in our lifetimes.”


Dr. Henry Everitt and the Saturn rocket that inspired him as a young boy.

Photo courtesy of David Hatch

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