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Interstellar Space is Professor's Frontier of Choice

By Kristin Duisberg
November 25, 2009

Eberhard Möbius, professor of Earth, oceans, and space and professor of physics.
Perry Smith, Photo

Note: This is one in a series of profiles of 2009 Faculty Excellence Award recipients.

Growing up in Western Germany, Eberhard Möbius dreamed of becoming an engineer who built ships, only to be deterred by his parents’ observation that the ocean was “a long way away.” It is somewhat ironic, therefore, to consider the frontier Möbius ultimately chose for his life’s work: interstellar space, or the region where our solar system meets the rest of the galaxy.

When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched its tiny Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) satellite last October, on board were several instruments designed and built by a team of UNH scientists, engineers, and students led by Möbius. For the next several years, IBEX will orbit the Earth, “photographing” the atoms that define the boundary between our solar system and the outer galaxy. An expert in the development of so-called time-of-flight systems, which identify solar particles by determining their mass, Möbius was an obvious choice to build components of these high-sensitivity cameras. “The images IBEX collects will enable us to analyze the interstellar gas and for the first time map the edge of the solar system,” he explains. “Contributing to this project has been a high point in my research career.”

The research problems he pursues may be literally otherwordly, but the soft-spoken professor says one of his most memorable teaching challenges was decidedly down-to-earth. Tapped as a new UNH professor to teach introductory astronomy, Möbius jumped at the chance to share his love of the subject with a large group of students—only to be shocked by poor scores on their first exam. “I saw that as my failing, rather than theirs,” he says. “I had to learn to teach the material in a way that students with a huge variation in knowledge base could be successful understanding it.”

Möbius’ colleagues are not surprised that the physics researcher who has made some of the most important discoveries in his field would take an introductory course so personally. “Eberhard’s career is an outstanding example of what we all strive for in our professional lives,” says fellow physics professor Lynn Kistler. “Everything that he takes on, he puts his heart into.”


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