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Colleagues, Students and Friends Remember Physicist Ray Hefferlin


Southern Adventist University professor emeritus Dr. Ray Hefferlin passed away on Saturday, March 7, 2015. His obituary on the Southern Adventist University website recounts the scientific arc of his life:

Ray Hefferlin, a globally-renowned physicist, Southern Adventist University professor, and beloved husband and father, died Saturday, March 7, 2015. Though his research and professional curiosity would take him all over the world, Hefferlin loved the Chattanooga area and spent the last 60 years calling Collegedale home.

Hefferlin was born in Paris, France, in 1929 and moved to California with his father at the age of seven. He received his bachelor’s degree from Pacific Union College in 1951 and later a doctorate from California Institute of Technology. He married Inelda Phillips in 1954 and shortly thereafter accepted a position as professor at Southern in 1955.

Hefferlin’s passion for physics was evidenced early on as a young professional. He spent the summers of 1957 and 1958 in California at the National Radiation Defense Lab and even witnessed two atomic blasts. His research there, combined with his job at Southern, led to consulting positions with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, near Knoxville.

During the 1960s Hefferlin received his first research grant and focused on experimental spectroscopy, studying the interaction between matter and radiated energy. By the 1970s, he switched to more theoretical work and, along with Southern students and a colleague in New York City, began creating a chart (similar to the periodic table of elements) that organized diatomic molecules in a way that highlighted their similar properties. Always in pursuit of better data, Hefferlin led his team in refining this chart through the years. The end result was a definitive work that is being used today by students and scientists internationally.

Despite these and other successes—Hefferlin published more than 80 peer-reviewed articles on a variety of topics and met or corresponded with nearly a dozen Nobel Prize winners—he mentored Southern students with humble and heartfelt enthusiasm. Countless projects moved forward under his watch and graduates who studied with Hefferlin have worked in such notable fields as Higgs boson research and human genome sequencing. 

Age had little impact on his professional vigor and willingness to support students with similar intellectual interests. Last year he traveled to Turkey with Southern senior Josh Barrow to attend the International Advances in Applied Physics and Materials Science Congress. During a recent interview with Southern’s campus magazine, Hefferlin described what motivated him, and others, to live a life consumed by this level of drive for new understandings. 

“For many students, research is the holy grail that their individual make-up has been harboring unknown for years. For some, it’s music or art. But for those in physics and engineering, it’s finding what God has put into nature for them to discover.”

Hefferlin is survived by his wife, Inelda; daughters, Lorelei Hefferlin Powers (and husband, Steve), Jennifer Hefferlin Harrell (and husband, David), Heidi Hefferlin (and husband, Craig Kronenberg), and Melissa Hefferlin (and husband, Daud Akhriev); seven grandsons, one granddaughter, and two great grandchildren. His memorial service will be held at the Collegedale Church of Seventh-day Adventists on Wednesday, March 25, at 4 p.m. Don Hall, a 1960 Southern graduate and among the first students Hefferlin mentored on a research project, is offering one of the eulogies.

In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations be made to the Ray Hefferlin Endowment Fund at Southern Adventist University which provides need-based scholarships for physics and engineering students 



Ray’s many friends, students, colleagues, and research collaborators have been celebrating his life through sharing memories, reflections, and pictures on the Facebook group In Memoriam to Dr. Ray Hefferlin. We share some of these with you below.


Doc profoundly touched and influenced so many of our lives, and not only in the ways of science — he inspired in us a love for art, humanity, and philosophy.  His desire to work with collaborators around the world, transcended political borders and brought us all closer together — in many ways, he was a scientist without borders.   And, in so doing, he made the world a safer, more interesting place to live.
Rick Cavanaugh, Former Research Student


Dr. Hefferlin is the reason I LOVE physics. He was an amazing man. He was passionate about his daughter’s art, his new physics students, and the fun of discovering new connections in his periodic tables of molecules. He quite fond of his wife and kids even though he seemed to be always absorbed in the world of physics. I loved this man. I always enjoyed getting the “Physics at SAU” updates. Over the last few days since I heard the news, I have found myself saying, “Dr. Hefferlin taught me that.” In fact, I was mentioning to my kids (as every good physicist should) that riding a motorcycle is an exercise in angular momentum and forces because, at sufficiently high speeds, you have to push the handlebars the opposite direction to incur the proper forces to turn (go do the vector diagrams if you aren’t convinced smile emoticon. The first time I ever had the motorcycle angular momentum conversation was in Dr. Hefferlin’s office. There will be hundreds of these little personal conversations with myself over the next couple of months. The world is missing an important part of its heart and soul with the passing of this local legend. I don’t know what else to say than I’m sorry to hear that he’s gone, but I’m extremely blessed to have known such a fun-loving, brilliant, selfless man.

Steven Kurti
Associate Professor and Director of Photonics Applications and Biomaterials Laboratory
Loma Linda University School of Dentistry
Former Research Student


Many friends and colleagues have written tributes to Dr. Ray Hefferlin, who passed away over the weekend. What is telling is that no one focuses on the fact that he was an incredible professor, an esteemed physicist and has collaborated with scientists around the world, which of course he was and so much more. What people remember most is his kindness, his generosity, his authenticity. Despite the credentials and accolades that he richly deserved, he was very humble and would only talk about himself if prodded to tell a story. He was a man who sought after God and an exemplar of Christian education. My time at Southern was extremely special and Doc was a part of that. Though he ‘retired’ before I even got there, I always enjoyed his guest lectures. I was blessed when we got to spend a lot of time together when he became my thesis advisor. He gave me the opportunity to conduct real research and writing papers for journals. I was always amazed how he would have lunch with someone while I was doing Physics homework and depending on the day he would be speaking French, Russian, Spanish, or Esperanto. He hosted my extended family with a wonderful meal on the day of my Graduation. All my Physics professors and close friends were there. I had been over to his house many times before (which was always a treat to have Inelda’s cooking) and every time was special. Like so many lives he has touched in his 60 years at Southern, I will miss my friend.

Jason Ileto [majors and year?]
Operations Research Analyst
US Central Command Deployment & Distribution Operation Center
Former Research Student


Doctor Hefferlin (or just “Doc”) has profoundly impacted my life in more ways than I can count. Having spent countless hours discussing physics with him and listening to his methodical and clear explanations to taking long walks with him thorugh various mountain ranges across the world, he gave me an incredible example of a way to live a life.

I first met him during my freshman year in my Southern Connections class that he taught in 2009. I really appreciated his passion for teaching and for science so I reached out to him as someone to become a mentor to me for physics research. By my sophmore year I was working with him regularly on a project studying periodicity in diatomic molecules. This would eventually lead to my very first publication. Throughout this time I spent many hours one on one in his office getting to know him better. I remember raving to my parents about how cool “Doc” was, about his inspiring life and the fascinating science we were doing. However, he was more than just an incredible mentor, he was also my friend.

As a result of his profound influence on my life, I pursued an opportunity to work on a project at CERN in Switzerland during the year I spent in school at Collonges. This also gave me the opportunity to visit him in Locarno. I felt incredibly lucky as I hiked across the Alps with him. He loved to take out his maps which contained meticulous notes showing me many of his favorite hikes and the ones still on his wishlist. We walked through valleys with incredible waterfalls and clear blue water. As we walked on some of the same pathways where he spent part of his childhood, we discussed life, physics, and philosophy.

Later in my life, he met me in Utah and took me hiking with him through the Wasatch Mountain State Park. We found a log in a beautiful meadow perfect for a picnic bench and we pulled out our cheese and fruit. However, soon we were set upon by countless flies forcing us to abandon our log and continue our hike as we were chased by more flies. But even when beset by countless flying insects, taking walks with him was incredibly invigorating thanks to the unique bounce in his step which was instantly contagious.

Seeing how Doctor Hefferlin lived his life inspired me in countless ways. The way in which he was able to stay in touch with his family, nature, and spirituality all while fully and completely indulging his intense curiosity for how the world worked, gave me a model for the way in which I want to live my own life. At least for me, when I was around him, he gave me confidence about the direction of my life. He lived a life of integrity. He showed me it is possible to be completely honest in your exploration of science while simultaneously maintaining a close relationship with God. Most importantly I saw the fulfillment that comes from living a passionate life with a love for God and others at the center of your life. I hope that I’ve taken these much needed lessons to heart well enough to share them with others someday.  I will miss him deeply.

Jonathan Sackett
Former Research Student


We were shocked and saddened by the death of my long-term mentor and friend, Dr. Ray Hefferlin. Doc will be missed by thousands of current and former students and colleagues. He trained generations of Seventh-day Adventist physicists (at least 3), and worked up to the end with students in his research projects. I ate lunch with him every Tuesday, often talking entirely in French, but lately in Russian — very halting Russian on my part. I have on my smartphone the notes we were exchanging to prime the pump for our next lunch conversation, mostly about faith & science questions relating to the paper I’ll be presenting at the conference this week. I can’t believe that the conversation is over.

Ken Caviness
Professor of Physics, Southern Adventist University


If Nature is periodic I hope we get another fellow, another singular man and warm human being as Professor Hefferlin in the coming period. Such a kind and calm man of big glasses, tender eyes, big heart and soft voice today rest in peace and my heart is with him and his family.

Guillermo Restrepo
Visiting researcher, Department of Computer Science
Leipzig University, Germany
Research Collaborator


A memorial service for Dr. Hefferlin will take place Wednesday, March 25 at the Collegedale Seventh-day Adventist Church at 4pm. More details about the service are available here.

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