Distinguished Professor Gene Takle retires

May 7, 2018

Outside of Walnut Grove, Minnesota, a contributing author to a Nobel Peace Prize winning project was born in a farm house with no electricity or indoor plumbing. Eugene (Gene) Takle always intended to go back to the farm, but the young man who opted for agriculture classes and never took biology wound up getting his Ph.D. in physics.

Following Sputnik and the space race of the late 50s, the United States focused on science education for youth. It was an English teacher who set Takle on a scientific path. 

“My family did not subscribe to newspapers or news magazines,” said Takle. “My English teacher showed me a copy of Newsweek and gave me one of the cards from inside. I subscribed and actually read the thing every week for years.”

Takle was recruited to attend Luther College in Decorah. The Spring of 1965 he was the nation’s top 3-mile and 6-mile track runner held at nationals in Long Beach, California. In the Fall he was the first place finisher for the collegiate cross country national meet as well, earning him a spot on the back of Sports Illustrated magazine.

The summer between running titles shaped his future scientific career. Takle did an undergraduate research experience at the Ames Laboratory doing materials science studying the atomic motions of various metals.

He graduated in 1966 and was invited to participate in the Goddard Institute for Space Studies with Columbia University. “We toured Kennedy Space Station and saw them building the rocket that would eventually take Neil Armstrong to the moon,” said Takle.

After his successful experience with the Ames Lab and finishing his BA at Luther, Takle started his Ph.D. program in physics at Iowa State. His focus was evaluating the orbits of atoms of various metals using radio frequencies to track them. Takle quickly found out thunderstorms produced stronger signals than his experiment. Every time it stormed they had to shut the project down. Always asking questions, Takle wondered if the storm’s radio-noise signals could be traced to something in the storm.

He and his fellow graduate students got their hands on an old ham radio with additional radio frequency bands. When the storms prevented his materials research, they would track the radio-noise patterns of storms. His side research led him to take a class in atmospheric physics, publish two papers, and connect the noise patterns to a tornado in Story County.

Takle earned his Ph.D. in 1971 and was offered a job with the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C. doing research on an over the horizon radar.  “There was a federal hiring freeze at the time, and even though they told me this position wasn’t affected, I knew other people who moved out there and didn’t end up getting a federal job,” said Takle. 

Meanwhile, the Clean Air Act had been approved in 1970 and was being enforced. There was tremendous demand for private consultants to help businesses comply. Iowa State had just lost one of their two meteorology faculty to the private sector. It was difficult for ISU to compete to hire someone. “I was a physics guy,” said Takle. “I had taken one atmospheric science class and here I was interviewing for a job in meteorology.”

Despite no meteorology experience, he started December 1, 1971 teaching four meteorology classes he’d never taken. The demands of his teaching course load meant little time for research, but over the years that split between teaching and research shifted.

In the beginning, he studied wind energy, which led to research in boundary layer meteorology. By the 1980s he was studying climate change.  His early climate work predicted some of the changes we see today. Takle followed that work by contributing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. At that time global climate models were low resolution and used a grid system so large there wasn’t a single data point for the entire state of Iowa. Takle, together with his ISU colleagues, brought together regional climate modelers from around the world in the late 1990’s to compare information and systems. Leveraging climate models from other parts of the world allowed everyone to better understand how climate change may impact the regional weather.

Around the same time, the internet became more widely available. Takle saw it as an educational opportunity and partnered with a language researcher in Denmark to offer the first online course from Iowa State University. They leveraged the theory of language games to graph online discussion threads, and determined the key to learning is for someone to make all discussion threads converge to the bigger picture.

In recent years Takle has found himself studying wind energy again as public interest focused on alternative energy. Currently his tall tower project indicates wind farms likely are beneficial to agricultural crops. In addition, the project seeks to improve the forecasting of wind power for the wind energy industry.

In his personal life, Gene married Miriam June 15, 1968 and raised three kids. He enjoys spending time on his Wisconsin farm, aptly named “Wazegonnadowidis,” where he grows an assortment of prairie grasses, flowers and hops.