Astronomer's Career Spans The Stars, But His Interest Grew In Willingboro He Found Galaxy Migration, And Eased Hubble's Troubles.

Posted: April 02, 1995

Gazing out his picture window before work, former Willingboro resident Tod Lauer appraises his surroundings in the craggy foothills of Tucson, Ariz. Rugged ocher-colored rocks and blooming cacti dot the desert. Coyotes own the nearby ravine. During summertime thunderstorms, lightning bolts darting down

from billowing clouds are visible 40 miles away.

It's a long way from the pools, parks and schools of Willingboro. Distant, but not forgotten.

Lauer, a 1975 graduate of John F. Kennedy High School, has won recent recognition in Time and Discover magazines for his discovery of galaxy migration - the unexpected lateral movement of galaxies, flowing like a river in space rather than steadily away from one another.

These days, the lecture circuit takes Lauer far from his post as an assistant astronomer at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson. And his work with the Hubble Space Telescope gives him a front-row seat to galaxies far, far away. But no matter what corner of the universe he's studying, Lauer never strays from the scientific building blocks he learned in Willingboro.

"Don't assume things," for one. "You have to be able to give up your assumptions," Lauer said he had learned from his eighth-grade advanced science teacher, John Gilligan.

That crucial lesson came in handy more than 20 years later.

Lauer and Marc Postman, a friend and collaborator from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, had to shed their long-held notions about the

universe in order to make their important discovery of galaxy migration.

Their project was supposed to test a theory that astronomers had taken for granted - that galaxies are moving away from one another at a relatively constant rate in an evenly expanding universe. It was the kind of research that's called a "sanity check," Lauer said during a telephone interview last week.

When their data showed something far different, the pair experienced a minor crisis.

"We were both very upset," Lauer said. "We had spent all this time on this, and we got this answer that looked bizarre.

"Our first response was, 'Gee . . . something terrible happened with our data.' "

The two scientists spent the next year checking and rechecking their work. So far, no one has been able to prove it wrong.

Besides the galaxy migration discovery, Lauer has earned acclaim for his work testing the Hubble telescope. He used his computer software expertise to focus blurry images the telescope received, and in 1992 won the shiny brass NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement.

By high school, Lauer had known for years that he wanted to be an astronomer. He and other members of a school astronomy club had "star parties" in the Pinelands and at the Shore.

He also played French horn in the jazz, concert and marching bands.

His work on the school's TV crew gave him a close look at the historically controversial Willingboro school board. From the beginning when the crew filmed meetings, board members played to the cameras, he said.

"They were an incredible joke back then," Lauer said. "I don't think the

TVs helped."

Lauer left an indelible impression on several of his teachers.

Gilligan, who still teaches in Willingboro, said, "Tod's one of those people you remember." One of Lauer's most memorable traits was his habit of offering several answers to the same question, all correct and complete with their own explanations.

Jack Smith, his physics teacher, who now teaches at Shawnee High School, said Lauer was the kind of student who had come along fewer than five times in his 33-year career.

"I would teach him things and mostly get out of his way and let him do his own thing," Smith remembered.

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