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“A Conversation With...” Dr. John Hoffman
Recorded June 22, 2009
Office of Communications, UT Dallas
Host: Brandon V. Webb, Communications Manager
Question: Greetings, and welcome to A Conversation With... the UT Dallas Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies, Professor of Physics in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and Space Scientist at the William B. Hanson Center for Space Sciences, Dr. John Hoffman.
Dr. Hoffman’s instruments have helped unpack the mysteries of our solar system from three Apollo missions to the moon to test atmospheric conditions, to the Pioneer Mission to Venus in 1978, to the landmark Phoenix Mission to Mars in 2008.
His spectrometer helped explore Haley’s Comet in 1986, and his experiments still revolve around the earth on a handful of orbiting satellites. The recent Phoenix Mars Mission--where the presence of water was definitively determined--depended heavily on a system of small furnaces and a mass spectrometer system he designed and built. He came to the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest 1966. In 1967 the Research Center changed its name to the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies, later becoming UT Dallas in 1969. Dr. Hoffman has served all three organizations with distinction, and I’m honored to visit with him today. Thanks for being here, Dr. Hoffman.
Hoffman: You quite welcome. I am happy to be a part of this program.
Question: A Bachelor’s Degree from St. Maries College in Minnesota, a PhD from the University of Minnesota, how is it you came to Texas in 1966?
Hoffman: Well I came to Texas via Washington DC actually, I kind of came from the North to the South in two steps, you might say. I was invited to work at the US Naval Research Laboratory in 1959, and joined the space science group there which was headed by Dr. Herbert Freedman. This group was one of the pioneer organizations in the studying the atmosphere of the earth and actually it was a group formed before actually NASA was formed, NASA was formed basically in the atmospheric part of it for out of the group at the Naval Research Lab. I was given a job opportunity there, which I took and I was very happy to do that. We started working there in a group called Oronomy group, under a fellow by the name of Charlie Johnson. We were working with, what are called AROBY 150 rockets; they were flown at the White Sands missile range out in New Mexico. These would go up to 150 kilometers altitude and take different scientific instruments that we were developing there in NRL. These flights were of course sub-orbital, which all they just went up and down for about ten to fifteen minutes duration, well we started to learn a lot about the lower atmosphere of the earth. At that point I took the mass spectrometer that I was working with the university of Minnesota on my doctoral dissertation, which was of course a room full of equipment and miniaturized it down to a box which was about 1 foot cubed and weighed maybe 20 pounds or something like that instead of hundreds of pounds and you know, great big of operation that I was typically using at the university of Minnesota. We flew these rockets at White Sands and we were studying the lower ionosphere, that is the completely charged particles of the earth up to an altitude of about 150 kilometers.
Question: What did you know at that time? Was anything space science related emerging out of Dallas? I mean how did you get aware that the program might exist and have an opportunity for you here in Dallas?
Hoffman: I have had a number of successful flights and then published some data and some information about it and we also had a rocket that went up to a thousand kilometers, which was called a Javelin Rocket, and after that there was a meeting of some organization in Washington as of course there are so many such organizations being in Washington DC area and several people from the Dallas group had come to Washington and I intended this meeting. I really hadn’t known these people, although I had known of them, but Bill Hanson particularly and Walter Heikkila, are two that contacted me and I guess we had lunch or something like that and out of that conversation one of them said: “Well why don’t you just come down to Dallas and give us a seminar”, and told me a little bit about the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest and what the goals of the organizations were and how it was formed and so far. I said “Well sure, why not, I will be glad to come down and present a seminar down here,” and so I did. That kind of led to more discussion and eventually I was offered a position out here and so on. Actually my wife and I came down and kind of checked out the area and we liked what we saw and so we actually put in an offer on a house right off the bat, this is bought in September of 1966, and I received an offer of an employment here at the graduate research center of Southwest, so we decided to come down here and try it out for five years. Well I think since this is 2009 and that 5 years is not quite up and it’s getting close to being up. But, anyway, we did move down here, the house was completed in November and we moved in November of 1966, and we had three children at that time and they were all very young, the oldest was 5. And so we thought that this might be a pretty good place to raise kids and I like the atmosphere at the Graduate Research Center, and certainly Bill Hanson and Frank Johnson were very well known in the field, and I thought this is a great opportunity and I could join them. And so I came and I am very happy I did.
Question: Were you sort of on board from the beginning about performing space science research in North Texas?
Hoffman: I think that now looking back it actually seemed like a very good opportunity. It was a new organization, fairly new, it was only a few years old at that time and of course Bill Hanson and Frank Johnson had developed you know an excellent reputation along with Walter Heikkila and several others, that I decided that yeah this would be a great opportunity to actually further my career and study in the atmosphere of the earth and hopefully, eventually the planets, I wasn’t into that yet, but that developed later on. And so I thought it was a good opportunity and I decided, hey let’s try it.
Question: What did campus look like at that time? What did you see when you brought here for the first time?
Hoffman: Well, it was a big opening expanse of land and one building right in the middle of it known as the Founders building, because it was built by the three founders, Jonsson, McDermott and Green. And what’s now is Founders annex was the power plant for the Founders building and that was it. And of course we could just drive right up to the front door and park and didn’t have to walk for blocks away and the rest was just cotton fields. Our house was just south of Arapaho road, just west of Coit, that’s where we bought this house and north of Arapaho was all cotton fields. Things have changed.
Question: Who were some of your early contemporary on campus? Who were the people that you got to know and that you have affiliated with and they helped you to get acclimated to life at that time in one building that existed there on campus, there in Founders?
Hoffman: When I first came I was assigned to our laboratory space and given an office on the lower floor in the founders building, of course that’s where the space science area was; and Larry Brooks was assigned to work with me and Larry worked with me full-time until he retired just a few years ago and he was kind of a jack of all trades in the lab and an excellent worker and he could do almost anything; he was a technician, but very adapted to vacuum technology and vacuum systems, he could find a leak anywhere that nobody else could find in the vacuum system, which of course is quit critical. And so he was one of the people that worked with me and then of course I worked with the group, I worked with Hanson and Walter Heikkila and Brian Tinsley was along at that time and they were all part of this space science group there under Frank Johnson--he was the leader of the group. Of course then he became the first president of the University, he was actually interim president for several years, when the university was first formed out of the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies. I mean just a whole bunch of people that it seemed like when a person came they stayed almost forever, because there was very little turn over. I think the work conditions were so good that people just liked it here. It was a pretty close knit group. And by the way, we had the best cafeteria in the world. It was on the upper floor, in the west of the building.
Question comment: You are not the first person that I’ve heard say that. That they food was remarkable and that 40 years later it is still that memorable.
John Continue: Oh yeah! You can’t forget that, it was so good.
Question: How did you first become involved in the Apollo missions?
Hoffman: The Apollo missions, of course they started with Apollo 11. This summer is going to be the 40th anniversary of flying the Apollo 11 in 1969. There were plans, you know, for all these different missions, coming up after 11. There was an opportunity to look at the atmosphere of the moon and of course the first thing you might think about the moon that it doesn’t have an atmosphere, we were going out there to try to measure nothing, but the point is that there is a layer of gases around the moon, it’s just very rarified. And so these opportunities came along and, in those days, NASA was developing and there was a lot of funding, and opportunities came along, there were great abundance of opportunities and it was the kind of a Golden Age of space exploration and so I wrote proposals and put them in for these missions and I was fortunate enough to get contracts for them. We flew on the orbiter part of the missions in Apollo’s 15 and 16 and thought and of course we found out later that we could not do this, that we could actually measure this rarified atmosphere from the orbiter around the moon. And we were at 100 kilometer altitude and we did measure some gasses but we figured out later on that they had actually come from the space craft and weren’t the gas molecules from around the moon and they were not really the lunar atmosphere particles. But then we got down onto the surface on Apollo 17 and actually made direct measurement of the gasses in the lunar atmosphere and found out that the pressures are the numbered densities are basically less than what our best vacuum systems on earth can produce, at least in those days; I think you can get down to that level now, but not back in those days in 1972. So it’s very rarified atmosphere, but we were able to detect hydrogen and we were able to put some limits on things like carbon monoxide and carbon oxide.
Question: Did anyone ever visit with you in the early days of your research year and say “Space Science and Dallas the two just don’t seem to go together”?
Hoffman: I think that Dallas was coming of the age I would say, but it wasn’t just my work, because Hanson and Johnson were very well known in the field and in fact because of the work that Frank Johnson did we were known as Center of Excellence for NASA and there were only several of those around the country, and that’s another thing that made it a great place to work at. Dallas was getting known in that field, but it’s fairly narrow field, you know, studying the atmosphere of the planets, it’s a fairly narrow field, but it was getting to be known all over the world and we were here in Dallas and I don’t know about, of course you know this whole center here that was developing; we had excellent people in relativity and we had a small group in microbiology and we had the geosciences group, that was headed by Anton Hales who came from South Africa, so this was getting to be quit a well-known scientific endeavor here in Dallas, but it was a team effort, it had a lot of people involved, I was just one little cog in the wheel.
Question: Did you ever think you were, I know you mentioned it earlier working for about 5 years, I guess you never assumed you would be working and researching in the same place 43 years later?
Hoffman: No, I mean, I don’t think anyone can project that far. Well my dad was the same school for over 40 years; he was a professor at St. Mary’s College in Winona, Minnesota, I think about 42 years, I think about the same time I’ve been here at UT Dallas, and he did fine there and so if everything is working fine, there is no reason to move around, you know, and there was a great place to raise a family, so we just stuck it here.
Question: We are visiting with the Space Scientist John Hoffman from the William B. Hanson Center for Space Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas — How did you become involved in the Phoenix Mission and the eventual discovery of water on Mars?
Hoffman: Phoenix mission is a special type of mission that was one of the first series of NASA, called SCOUT missions, well the SCOUT missions came along a little different concept. They set up then that these were going to be much smaller missions and were going to be dollar capped missions, where prior to that NASA never did dollar cap a mission, they all exceeded budget and so forth, but in the early days there was plenty of money and that wasn’t really a problem. But these SCOUT missions were set up as principle investigator missions, in another words, they were, let’s say, we were going to fly to Mars, now each scientist who wants to do this has to form a team, develop your science goals and objectives and all that, collect the number of experiments that you will need and the number of instruments that you will need to satisfy your science goals, contact the people that you want to put on your team and then propose the whole bowl of wax.
Then the person who did this, who is in charge of all this, was known as the principle investigator for this mission and all the people that supplied instruments were the co-investigators under the direction of the principle investigator. And, so there was a little different way of managing the thing and then the dollar cap on it, which included the rocket to get there and all the launch cost and all that, it started out at $375 million dollars, whereas typically a Mars missions cost three times of that much. So it was a small mission and the weight restrictions were quit severe and so on. So the group formed at the University of Arizona. Peter Smith was the head of this group; I did not know Peter Smith, I had not met him before, but he had been involved in Martian Explorations for a number of years before that. So he was the principle investigator and then several other scientists at the University of Arizona, namely Bill Boynton one of the people in the group there, and I had met Bill before and I had some interactions with him earlier on, and he called me one day and said, “Would you like to join our group and supply the mass spectrometer, we are going to do this experiment to look for odd surface material, we are going to have a scoop on this thing, we are going to dig trenches, we are going to get samples, we are going to cook them in little ovens that we are developing here at the University of Arizona, and we need an analysis instrument that can look at all the gasses that were to be evolved as you cook a sample and decompose the minerals and see what comes off and do mineral identification, this way.
So I became a co-investigator on this one instrument known TEGA — Thermal Evolved Gas Analyzer. There were then 6 instruments planned for this particular mission and they came up with this name Phoenix for the mission, that was done I think by Peter Smith and others up there in Arizona. And the reason for that name actually has a little bit of history. Because in the late 1990s there were 2 missions flown to Mars that somehow didn’t quit make it to the surface in one piece, particularly the Mars... I will come back to that name. But it crashed in the northern region — Mars Polar Lander, I think that’s what it was called — it crashed in the northern part of Mars and it was going to do very much what the Phoenix mission was going to do, but with a little simpler instrumentation; they did not have a mass spectrometer, they had a couple of other detectors, again they already had developed those little ovens, so by the time that that flew, of course it takes about 5 years to put together one of these missions, they had already built a space craft identical to the one that crashed in 1999 to be launched in 2001, Opportunity.
Mars and Earth line up in such a way once every 26 months, so that you can launch off of Earth and get to Mars orbit and find Mars right there — so you have about a 3 week window every 26 months that you can lounge to Mars. And so 2001 lounge opportunity was cancelled because of the fact that the 99 space craft had crashed and they didn’t know exactly why and so they had to do a lot of analysis, you know, try to figure out. So that space craft was just put in storage at Lockheed Martin, and it’s called bonded storage, you know, it’s in the temperature controlled room and so forth. So this mission for Phoenix, I wasn’t involved in that part, but Peter Smith and engineers involved there, they looked at the space craft and by that time they had done a sufficient analysis on it, to know exactly what had gotten wrong and were able to easily correct the problem, it was a radar problem, that cut the retrorockets too soon and it just crashed into the surface. So they had done a very detailed analysis of this space craft and they knew everything about it, so why not use the one that’s in the storage and propose putting different instruments on board and fly it. And so we did. And so basically, Phoenix then was rising out of the ashes of the crashed space craft of 1999 and so that’s how they chose the name, nothing to do with Phoenix, Arizona, because the university is in Tucson.
Question: When you were getting involved in this particular project, do you think this might be the experiment that you could be involved in that discovers water on Mars? Do you have degree of hope, getting involved earlier on?
Hoffman: One of the goals of the Phoenix mission was the discovery of water on the surface of Mars — that was the prime goal. I mean, there was a lot of evidence that water had existed on Mars. There were valleys and there were formations, geological formations, materials that have been formed and so on, that indicated that water had existed, but nobody had actually found the water. It needed to have water to form these things like there were gullies, erosions and things like that, at least as far as Earth's concerned, they only could be caused by running water. But the point is water had not actually been identified, so that was one of the goals of Phoenix mission, to really identify the water. Anyway, we did accomplish that too .
Question: The Martin Day is 40 minutes longer than an Earth Day, so you ended up ultimately, during the time on your project, on the experiment, the active part of it, really eventually your schedule worked you around the clock.
Question: What was that like going to work in the middle of the night?
Hoffman: Well it was kind of interesting and I actually survived it very well. I think most people did. You know your Circadian rhythm is, uh, if you travel to Europe and you got a 6 hour time change once, then you get adapted to that time change and recover from it, usually the adrenalin flows, then you are fine. I usually find that I’m great there, then I come back home and then you crash for a while. But this is a continuous change, it’s 40 minutes every day, doesn’t sound like much. But in 10 days, that’s 400 minutes—that’s many hours—and so you walked through the night, you might be going over at 8:00 one day in the morning, then couple of weeks later you are going to work at 8:00 at night, and working half the night, and then you are going to work at 2:00 in the morning and all that, so it fortunately the rooms we worked in had zerowindows, so we didn’t’ know what was going on outside. We just lived there and we lived on Mars time and we didn’t know whether the sun was shining or not. I think that was a good thing. We had to work on Mars time, because there was no real-time activities, we had to send commands up to Mars. The transit time for a radio signal from Earth to Mars, because it was on the other side of the sun, was nearly 20 minutes one-way, and then by the time you received the signal and then turned around sent the signal back in the milliseconds, it was still a 40 minute time to go one way and then come back the other way.
Question: In talking with you in the past you’ve said that the early days of this mission presented some challenges and that Mars was not quick to give up its secret about water.
Hoffman: Well, it took us couple of months, before we actually got the water confirmed. First of all there were 8 ovens, and each of the ovens had a set of like French doors to open, the ovens had to be sealed, the entrances of the oven had to be sealed and they were actually sealed with a separate cover here on earth so that we wouldn’t get any materials in these ovens that we brought from earth, particularly, any kind of hydrocarbons or microbes or anything like that, that if we found them, say, “Oh, look what we found of Mars, oh no, they came from earth.”
False positives were things we were very concerned about. And so basically we had an each ovens had a set of trap doors, it opened as a French door, and we would do one of it at each time. Well we opened the first door and one half of that French door didn’t’ open all the way, it was blocked we didn’t know why, and so it was open, one side was open all the way, it was you know about 60 degree angle, something like that. Right underneath those doors there was a fine screen about 1 millimeter holes in the screen, because we didn’t want larger pieces of materials to go in there and blocking the mechanisms, the ovens are very tiny, they had an opening of about one millimeter across or something like that. They idea was we had a very small oven, because we had to have lots of insulation and not all that much power and we wanted it to get up to 1000 degrees Celsius temperature, so it had to be very efficient. Well anyway, so they dug up a scoop of dirt or Martin surface material and we decided, somebody, I actually forgot who came up with this bright idea, but in order to identify different spots when we were digging, we had to have some kind of naming plan. So they came up with fairy tale characters, as naming the different areas. The first sample we took was a Baby Bear and it came from the Goldilocks area, well I mean, this was fun. So Baby Bear, was the first sample, that we dug up and we were going to cook Baby Bear, the thing is that we didn’t know how much material we were going to get, the scoop was about 2.5 inches wide and maybe 4 or 5 inches long, something like that, and it was on an arm, it basically like a human arm, there was a shoulder, the... on a space craft, there was an elbow half way out, about a meter out, and then another meter, the lower part of the arm, then wrist joint, and the scoop was like a hand.
So anyway, it would dig, like a backhoe, dig up a sample. So we go this sample out of the surface, very loose material, so they dumped it on the first oven and it was way too much material and it stuck there, now, we had that screen there, but you know if you put flour in the sifter, the flour will never go through the sifter until you shake it, because it’s kind of an adhesive material, and this material from the surface of Mars was just like that. None of it went through the screen. And so we had a mechanism built in, it’s a little vibrator motor, and so we could vibrate the screen and vibrate the funnel under the screen that would lead anything that came down into the oven itself. And nothing happened. There was a little razor detector underneath there, that would detect how many particles came through and you know, whether or not the oven was full. Nothing came through. We did this on six successive sols [Martian Days], and of course because of limited amount of time, we could shake up about a half an hour each day and nothing came through, just very sticky stuff. And so on the 6th sol we were just about ready to give up and it just flopped right through and filled the oven and everybody cheered and so we cooked it. No water, zero water. So the scenario was, what we figured out was that probably what happened is that when the space craft landed, there were 6 retrorockets, there were hydrazine rockets which slows the space craft down, but of course there were hot fumes coming out from these rocket exists pointing straight downward. So it did blow some of the loose dirt from the surface away from under the space craft and actually it uncovered an area about a foot diameter which was bright white, and we called it “the white stuff” — we didn’t know what it was, it was probably ice or could have been salt, salt is white. I mean it could have been several things, so it was a called “the white stuff.” It turns out that it was water ice, and so we think what happened is that some of that surface ice actually melted due to the high temperatures of those rocket fumes exits coming out and sprayed this area with a coating of water.
There were also some pieces that flew up and landed on the surface of the deck of the space craft itself and when we did the first atmospheric measurements with the instruments we got way too much water vapor, over what was expected to be in the atmosphere, so we think that we were measuring the water that came directly from there, but that wasn’t a sufficiently firm analysis that we could say “ah, we have identified water”, but it was another thing that we did, but it wasn’t the final finish of the analysis. So we think what happened then of sublimation rate of this ice surface of Mars was very high. Sublimation is the process of changing from a solid to a gas without going through the liquid state. That rate was very high. ... it was too cold for liquid water to exist on the surface of my Mars right now, because the temperatures were 20 to 30 below zero or something like that on the surface during the day time. So what happened then was that material that was sitting on that screen on top of the oven, was sublimating all the water out of it and it just took 6 soles before it all got out and the material that was left was nice, loose, powdery stuff that went right through the screen into our oven, but the water was gone. Later on, when we moved into a different area, we moved to a Snow White area, just named that, and when were able to dig, we found a different type of material, in both cases when we dug down about 5 cm or 2 inches, we actually hit a hard surface, there was loose material above that and you dug down and about 5 cm down and that’s exactly where are the original analysis of that data from an orbiter from the Odyssey instruments, the analysis that Bill Boynton did, said that we should find the ice about 5 centimeters below the surface and exactly that’s where we found it. But so and this other area we found that the soil was much harder than at the Baby Bear Golden locks site and the people that built the arm and the scoop and all that, they realized that we might run into some hard materials that the scoop didn’t have enough strength, I mean when you are out there for a 2 meter digging, you don’t have a lot of digging strength on a very lightweight arm, it’s not like a backhoe here on earth and so they had built a little rasp on the heel of the scoop that they had a little vibrator there and they could actually dig a hole, so we got off, they drilled 16 holes on the surface there and we were able to scoop up the materials that came out of these holes, they were probably an inch deep or something like that.
And that’s when we finally got that material scooped up and we got it into an oven later on and there was some dirt with it of course and that’s the one that we actually cooked it and found that there was water in it.
Question: We are visiting with space scientist John Hoffman from the William V. Hanson Center for Space Scientists at the University of Texas at Dallas. So the sample that you took ultimately confirmed that the water presence was from the “Snow White” sample area?
Hoffman: Right, the sample that we took out of it, the name of the sample was “Wicked Witch”.
Question: Take me through what went through your mind at the moment of actual confirmation, where were you, when did it happen, what were some of the thoughts that went through your mind?
Hoffman: We had different areas and a very large room and what’s called a SOC- spacecraft operations center-which was the building that the University of Arizona had purchased and furbished it exactly to be head quarters for this mission and when we found the water peak in the mass spectrum and they found the actual — temperature rose up to about zero degrees Celsius — melting point of ice, then it took a lot of extra power input which is measured very accurately into the ovens in order to actually melt the ice before the temperatures would rise again — that’s the way it works, you have to melt all of the ice before the temperature of the oven is going to allowed to rise because of all the energy you are putting in is actually change in the state of the material. And so we saw that and then we saw that the water vapor peak and then, “Ah! We got it.” And of course when we announced it, everybody cheered, but then we realized that we have accomplished that part of the mission, which actually to the scientists involved wasn’t a prime thing, we were interested more in the mineralogy and whatever else was going on, but that was one of the goals that was set up by NASA headquarters for this Phoenix mission. And so of course we had to satisfy that goal and satisfy all the people in the NASA headquarters, which we did, and we were then freed from that particular goal, so that we could start doing other things. On to the next project — next part that we wanted to do.
Question: Most of us who are the lay community, who don’t do space science research as you do, I think this has been and maybe for the space community as well, truly one of the great scientific questions of last century or so. So I just wonder about your thoughts of moving ahead in your own research and career, knowing that you have been a part of this — something to brag about among your colleagues?
Hoffman: Oh yeah, certainly, but you know this is not my first mission, I started out with the moon, well of course earth orbiting satellites and everything you discover is exciting along the way and of course getting in to the surface of the moon and looking at the gasses that were in the lunar atmosphere and then going to Venus and finding, particularly in the Venus situation we found out that argon (?) isotope ratio was a hundred time different than from the one on earth, totally unexpected finding as far as Venus. And that was quite exciting. Then of course flying pass Haley’s Comet, that mission was run by an European Space Agency, so I was over in Darmstadt, Germany during that fly by and that was kind of exciting. Again you always have a computer terminal, you can watch things, but you have headphones in that case, you can hear the whole mission, everybody talking about it and we were looking for dust coming out of the comet, because a comet supposed to be a dirty snowball that has a lot of dust that would be released as it sublimates the ice out of the surface, as it’s gotten closer to the sun and we weren’t seeing anything and the dust people were saying “is there a comet somewhere out there or not” and all of a sudden we hit a wall of dust and almost ruined the whole space craft. It was about 600 kilometers maybe close to a thousand kilometers away from the comet itself. And we ran into this big wall of dust particles and so there it was. Everything like that is exciting, and but you know, Mars was certainly equally exciting if not more or so.
Question: Of all of your many instruments in space that have performed research over the years, missions of discovery, your time at the Naval Research Lab in DC, and over the years teaching countless students as this organization evolved into a full pledged, four-year, plus graduate education institution. What are you most proud of accomplishing?
Hoffman: You know we just talked about all the different missions, and of course there were other things than that, earth orbiting things, the ISIS space craft that ran for 10 years, the atmosphere explore space craft, three of those worked very well and looking at the ionosphere of the earth and all that. But then couple of all that I would say concurrent with all of that, the university was developing, it was developing as a graduate school only for a while. Initially my first years, when I was so involved with the Apollo missions and the ISIS and the Atmosphere explore, and the Venus mission, I basically bought myself off 100% and worked entirely on my research for the first years and then I moved from there into getting into the education part of the university. So the whole thing was kind of going on and I was basically involved entirely in research my first number of years here. Then of course I got involved in the university administration; I was head of the physics department, I’ve been an associate dean of the school and taught a number of courses, and so I’ve seen the university develop, first of all as a graduate school, then as juniors and seniors only, as an upper division school, then finally in 1990, when we started to introduce freshman and sophomores, so that program built, starting off in just first 3 years we had a hundred freshman each first 3 years and now of course we are up to 1,300 freshmen or something like that during each year. I guess I’ve had a little bit to do with the development of the undergraduate program, because I’ve been an associate dean for undergraduate education and putting in my two cents worth as far as policies and all of that. But these two things kind of developed and they were two parts of my life, really, both were very important, both were interesting.
Question: Can you share your age Dr. Hoffman?
Hoffman: My age, 79.
Question: And as you begin to step back from some of your responsibilities here at the UT Dallas, and you reflect on 43 years at an organization. I want to know what’s next for John Hoffman. I want to know what are you passionate about in terms of the next chapter for your life?
Hoffman: Well, I’ve been involved with music and physics all my life basically, although there is a big hiatus from music there for a while. When I was in high school I started playing clarinet and I kind of carried that on through college and then I just had this big fight with myself as I imagine most people do, you know, what am I going to do for my life and there was a question about whether it would be science or music and my dad was of course, he was a chemist, he was the head of the chemistry department; my mother was a very accomplished pianist and taught piano and organ and all that and actually had aspiration to be a concert pianist, she didn’t quite go with that road, but so we had music and science in the family you know — grew up that way. So when I got into going through college, I decided to go into physics instead of music, I was going to go to graduate school, I figured that playing clarinet, there were thousands of people who played clarinet, and there would be no way to be able to do physics and to able to practice enough in order to be able to play anywhere. So I switched to an oboe and in those days absolutely zero people played oboe.
Question: A way to stand out?
Hoffman: Yes, that’s the way to do it, because I probably wouldn’t have to be quite as proficient on the oboe as I would have to be in clarinet, because nobody played the oboe. So I started taking oboe lessons from one the Minneapolis symphony people and I liked it. It was a great instrument and of course you have to learn how to make your own reeds and all that kind of stuff and so when I finally got out, I’ve been taking some lessons from one of the Minneapolis symphony oboe players, so when I got the university’s physics department, the first Fall I was there I got a call one day from the director of the University of Minnesota Symphony orchestra, saying “would you like to come and play oboe in the orchestra?” and I said: “Sure”, he has no oboe players in the music school and in those days the university was 50,000 students, I think it’s probably bigger than that now, but it was a big university and they had zero people that played oboe.
So I got to play in anything I wanted to and I had enough time to practice and enough to you know keep up my proficiency and so I played in the Minneapolis civic orchestra, of course they are not the symphony but they were an amateur orchestra and we had a woodwind quintet — it was great. Then I kind of, you know, got married and kids came along and all that and working, you know, I kind of dropped out of playing for a long time, for many years. And about 4-5 years ago, I picked the clarinet again and I thought it was easier to go back to it than the oboe and I’ve been playing it ever since. I play in three musical organizations right now and as I pull back from the university that I am going to go and half time in the fall and I resign from being an associate dean and will be teaching some courses and I would probably develop more of my playing just for fun.
Question: Thank you so much for you time and it’s truly been a pleasure Dr. Hoffman. If it doesn’t embarrass you I want you to know that I and a lot of my colleagues share a sentiment that you are one of UT Dallas’s treasures and it is indeed a real honor for me to be able to sit down with you sir.
Dr. Hoffman: Well thank you very much! I appreciate it.
Question: This has been a conversation with Dr. John Hoffman brought to you by the University of Texas at Dallas and Office of Communications. To find out more about our University, our special guests or 40 years of UT Dallas history visit us on the web at utdallas.edu. UT Dallas, creating the future since 1969. Until the next conversation with, I’m Brandon Webb, be well.
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