The license tag on Hap McSween’s red sports car says Meteor. "I think of it as a professional statement," says McSween, Distinguished Professor in UT’s Earth and Planetary Sciences and a man known for his boundless energy. "But my wife says it’s a warning to the highway patrol."
With quiet intensity, Harry "Hap" McSween, who is a member of the inaugural group of the UT Knoxville Chancellor’s Professors, contributes to the growing body of scientific knowledge about the planets and stars.
"Every generation needs something to discover," McSween says. "I’m so pleased to be at the right place at the right time."
McSween publishes prodigiously and is equally committed to UT’s three-part mission of education, research and service.
"My work is my hobby," he says.
In describing his scientific approach, McSween shows characteristic humility. "I have friends who are a lot smarter than I am," McSween says. "My approach is sometimes ugly. It’s based not on a blinding flash but on a lot of hard work. It’s more about being plodding and sometimes being lucky."
Luck, however, hardly explains his hundreds of cutting edge papers, his numerous books, his work with NASA, or the respect he’s earned among his colleagues here and abroad.
For 28 years, he’s been a campus leader – as Faculty Senate President, on countless committees and, recently, as chair of the Chancellor Search Committee.
Born in the small South Carolina town of Clinton, McSween could have stayed in the Air Force, then followed the money as a commercial pilot. Instead, he chose planetary sciences and a career based in large part on stimulating student’s curiosity and their love of science.
"We’ve learned so much about the planets through orbiting space craft and especially with rovers," he said. "This has opened up whole new fields, and it’s been really good for geology in general."
Studying the planets never gets boring, he says. "Reality is as remarkable as the imagination. What we’re learning about the earth and the solar system and how they came to be is just magic."
Hap and his wife Sue, who recently retired as an interior decorator, have a daughter, Lindsay, 27, who teaches sixth grade language arts.