Written in the Stars

"I loved physics before I knew to call it physics."—Kathy Hadley. Photograph by Jack Liu

Perhaps in another universe, one of the infinitude predicted by the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory, Kathy Hadley, MS ’05, PhD ’11, never even glimpsed that fateful poster in a Yakima employment office announcing an opening for a part-time Halloween pumpkin face-painter, a poster that, in this universe, our universe, somehow led her—through a series of Rube Goldbergian actions and reactions, causes and effects—to a PhD in theoretical astrophysics from the University of Oregon.

In that parallel universe, Hadley might have never suffered the motorcycle accident that seriously injured her leg, rendering impossible her former peripatetic existence.

In that universe, she might still be working as a humble shepherd throughout the western United States, moving with her herd, adjusting to the seasons, communing with the land.

“It’s so amazing when you’re on a mountain, looking at the night sky,” says this Hadley, ourHadley, as she reminisces about her itinerant former life from the lookout of her office in the physics department on the fourth floor of Willamette Hall. “It’s like you’re discovering it for the first time. It’s breathtaking.”

Maybe her long-ago late-night stargazing was the inciting event that put her on a path toward theoretical physics. Imagine if, in that other universe, the glittering field of stars had instead been concealed by thick cloud cover . . .

But who can say? Perhaps physics would have tracked her down in that universe as well, through a completely different series of unlikely events.

“It was as if physics chose me,” says Hadley, and her serene conviction on this matter makes one wonder if her career path wasn’t, in fact, written in the stars.

“I loved physics before I knew to call it physics. I remember being fascinated watching galaxy-like shapes form in the foam as I stirred a cup of hot chocolate.”

Hadley’s work explores the complex mechanisms of star birth and solar system formation: magnetohydrodynamics, to be inscrutably precise.

This is the process by which the universe comes to know itself: A molecular cloud in deep space condenses to give birth to a star, around which accretes a disc of dusty gas, rocks, and chemicals, out of which planets begin to agglomerate.

These planets orbit their central star in perfect lockstep—a docile flock.

Like most shepherds in the American West, Hadley and her husband, Jay, found themselves laid off during the late-autumn and winter months, when heavy snowfall transforms mountain passes into impasses. One October, in search of temporary work, she walked into a Yakima employment office, pored over the job openings, and felt dispirited.

“I knew how to track animals and find water—skills that don’t really transfer to the real world,” she says.

Then, a particular flier caught her eye: an artist was needed to paint faces on pumpkins for Halloween.

The equations of motion governing Hadley’s life quickly took shape after that: 

“She could only nod or shake her head,” she says of the student. “She communicated letter by letter.”

Add a whole lot of compassion to the equation. Raise it to the power of patience.

Only in this universe.

“Physics is like boot camp,” says Hadley. “The decision to pursue it has to come from within. You have to love the journey.”

Despite the complexity of her work, it was the fundamental nature of physics that initially drew her into its fold—in particular, its reputation as being the most foundational of all the physical sciences. In studying star formation, she has tackled one of the most basic and esoteric of all physical processes, for stars are the hydrogen-powered furnaces wherein all the heavier elements of the periodic table are forged and distributed in supernova explosions. All is stardust, from the carbon atoms in a shepherd’s sun-scorched skin to the potassium atoms in a sheep’s fleece.

What could be more complex? What could be more fundamental?

“Physics is the ultimate story problem,” she says.

Hadley has searched for answers her whole life, scouring land and sky for her soul’s purpose. She left college in her twenties, and she and Jay herded sheep in the mountains and deserts of Idaho, Wyoming, and much of the rest of the American West for twenty-five years. Her daily routine, in those hardscrabble days: She and Jay would rise at dawn and spend their time corralling sheep, climbing mountains, and hiking for miles over rugged terrain and patches of deadfall.

“What could be better?” she says.

But the shepherding life wasn’t always romantic and beautiful, she says; sometimes it was romantic and harsh. The couple endured blizzards, thunderstorms, heat waves—Mother Nature at her most furious. Hadley frequently found herself face-to-face with fundamental forces of nature: rain, wind, bears. As far as life-paths go, it was a terrific fit.

“It was clean and pure and gave me a huge amount of time to think and find myself.”

And she grew to love and respect the sheep under her care. She would gaze at the clouds and landscape and ponder whatever it is one ponders when deep in nature and deep in thought; at the same time, her sheep stared at the ground and chewed their cud, each species ruminant in its own way.

She learned that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to herding sheep. In time, she developed different shepherding styles to suit the distinct personality of each herd.

“I recognized that they are conscious beings with different personalities,” she says. “Some wanted to be held, some wanted to be free, some wanted me to hold them as loosely as possible, giving as much free rein as possible without chasing.”

Now she teaches students at the UO and Lane Community College—and finds herself using shepherding principles when she leads her undergraduate physics classes.

“Each class has its own identity,” she says. “Students develop a feeling of community.”

Hadley trusts in her own pedagogical instincts, honed by twenty-five years in the wilderness. In one recent class, for instance, during a lecture on the complex behavior of molecules within a gas, she made the topic come alive by passing around a bag of 600 balloons of many colors to her students filling a large lecture hall. They proceeded to blow up the balloons, bind them in pairs, and bat them around in what looked like a crazy game of volleyball. In essence, they built a gas.

“It was beautiful,” says Hadley, smiling at the memory. “A big gas of spinning, colorful balloons. Students were standing, laughing, jumping. It was great.”

In another universe, perhaps this balloon demonstration never happened. But it is difficult to imagine Hadley, in any universe, not surrounded by scores of sentient beings—whether Homo sapiensOvis aries, or some other species—who look to her for guidance.

In this universe, though, the demo did occur. And there stood Hadley, the shepherd turned astrophysicist, at the head of the classroom, while all around her a multitude of shimmering orbs were breathed into existence, expanding, rising, and spinning, filling the room’s airspace with movement and color and sound, where just moments before there had been nothing at all.

By Eric R. Tucker, MS ’11