Growing up in this rural corner of Breathitt County, Eric and Darren Hudson enjoyed the stuff country boys do: fishing, swimming, playing baseball and basketball, riding motorbikes and four-wheelers, roaming the surrounding hills.
In between, the brothers had fun cooking up homemade science “experiments” and building gadgets, including “cannons” that fired potatoes. One creation wrecked their backyard basketball goal.
Eric Hudson, now 39, is an associate professor of physics at UCLA. His brother Darren, now 36, is a senior lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.
Eventually, careers took the two far from home, but they’re still building gadgets, which have gotten a lot bigger and more sophisticated.
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In 2014, Darren Hudson built the world’s first “mode-locked, mid-infrared fiber laser,” a device that might prove useful in advanced surgical techniques.
In 2016, Eric Hudson led a research team that developed a new way of cooling molecules to near absolute zero. That development might lead to quantum computers that could solve problems that even today’s supercomputers can’t tackle. For that and other work, he was named earlier this year to receive a U.S. Presidential Early Career Award, which honors achievement in science and engineering.
Eric, now 39, is an associate professor of physics at UCLA. He runs his own research lab, working on “quantum interactions and fundamental physics,” according to the university.
His brother Darren, now 36, is a senior lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, where he does research in optical physics. He also co-founded a company there that builds scientific instruments.
Both brothers have doctorates in physics and astronomy from the University of Colorado, Boulder.
These boys have shown that if you want to learn and make something of yourself, you can.
James David Fugate, general manager of the
Any way you cut it, they’ve come a long way from the banks of Troublesome Creek, where they fished as boys.
Local residents are proud of what the brothers have accomplished, says James David Fugate, general manager of the Jackson-Breathitt County Times-Voice newspaper, which has run stories about them.
“Here in Eastern Kentucky, we’re not always looked upon as having great educational attainment,” Fugate said. “But these boys have shown that if you want to learn and make something of yourself, you can. There are lots of kids with potential here. But if you don’t have the confidence and support, it’s a tough climb.”
Certainly, small Kentucky communities have spawned scientific leaders before.
Lexington was a quiet country town when one of its favorite sons, geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan, a nephew of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan, won a Nobel Prize in 1933.
And Falmouth produced Phillip Sharp, who shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in physiology for his discoveries in gene splicing.
But for a tiny incorporated community like Flintville — nestled between Lost Creek and Clayhole — producing two brilliant physicists in one family seems particularly remarkable.
At the end of the day, building things in the backyard with our parents was a bigger influence than Einstein or Feynman.
Just how it all came about depends on which Hudson you talk to.
Eric and Darren give most of the credit to their parents, Raymond and Christine, for creating a home atmosphere that encouraged curiosity, inquiry and learning. But their parents minimize their contributions, citing instead their sons’ inborn desire to explore new things.
“It was no great magic trick or anything that we did that made it work,” Raymond said recently. “We just always encouraged the boys to explore things that interested them. As for school, we told them education was good and to continue with it if they were interested and liked it.
“But we never pushed them or told them to do this or that.”
Eric Hudson’s work could lead to quantum computers that could solve problems that even today’s supercomputers can’t tackle. Darren Hudson specializes in new kinds of lasers based on special glass fibers.
There were early signs that the Hudson kids had a gift. Both were on a quick-recall academic team in science and math at Breathitt County’s Marie Roberts Elementary School, their parents said.
Eric insisted in a recent email that he wasn’t very good at quick recall. He got more enjoyment being on the school’s problem-solving academic team.
“There, we had more time to be creative and think things over. To me, that was more fun, and a lot of what I like about experimental science today.”
One year, Darren set up a “lab” in a large closet at home, using a chemistry set he received for Christmas. Soon, the brothers were making up their own chemical formulations, fortunately without blowing up the house.
“I’m not sure we ever made anything useful, but I do remember creating a book of ‘recipes’ for cool chemical reactions that we sort of discovered by putting stuff together,” Darren said in an email conversation. “I remember thinking there were infinite possibilities in putting these things together … and that was incredibly fun.”
Eric said his interest in science really began during the many hours he and Darren spent playing in that closet laboratory.
The two brothers’ homemade experiments “mostly revolved around blowing things up,” Eric Hudson recalls.
Before long, the brothers were doing bigger homemade experiments, involving acetylene-filled balloons, strange concoctions of gunpowder, or whatever other materials were handy.
“They mostly revolved around blowing things up,” Eric admitted. “Our dad oversaw most of them — at least the ones that he knew about.
“In retrospect, parental supervision is probably the reason I’m still alive. But those experiments were really fun, and the sort of thing that only country kids can get away with.”
About that time, the boys started building potato cannons, using a design from the internet. Their first gun was a piece of PVC pipe containing a small amount of hairspray for fuel. When the boys ignited the hairspray with a lantern flint, the resulting small explosion sent the potato out the barrel with about 30 pounds of pressure behind it. Being boys, however, they wanted more power.
Their father happened to be running a small rural scuba-diving school at the time. So Eric and Darren borrowed one of his scuba tanks as a compressed air source, and Raymond, their dad, came up with a homemade valve that enabled them to raise the pressure inside the gun beyond 140 pounds per square inch.
“With that tank, it was another level. … The potatoes came out so fast,” Darren said.
Out of curiosity, I did shoot our basketball goal one time, which was really stupid.
At first, the potatoes disintegrated as they left the barrel. Eric and Darren learned that carving rifling grooves into the potatoes made them survive longer and fly farther. That turned out to be bad news for their backyard basketball goal.
“Out of curiosity, I did shoot our basketball goal one time, which was really stupid,” Darren said. “It basically split the backboard in half, effectively ending my dream of playing for the University of Kentucky one day.”
Fortunately, the boys found other, somewhat safer influences. They devoured every book they could find on Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman and other famous scientists.
Eric and Darren give most of the credit to their parents, Raymond and Christine Hudson, for creating a home atmosphere that encouraged curiosity, inquiry and learning.
At Breathitt County High, they took Margaret Gross’s physics class — their first real exposure to a branch of science that studies how the world works. They came away inspired.
Gross, now retired, says the boys were fascinated by learning.
“They were very good listeners in class, and they asked really good questions,” she said. “I thought they would be successful in any field they chose, … but I felt pretty sure that field would be physics.”
Eric remembered the class as “very important to me. I actually didn’t know what physics was before that. It was my first exposure, and the start of a road that I’m still on.”
Darren called Gross “a great teacher and motivator who went the extra mile for students.”
“Eastern Kentucky doesn’t have a great reputation for education as a whole, (but) there are individual teachers who go above and beyond. I was lucky to encounter several. My mother, of course, was the first. But there were others, including Ms. Gross.”
Both brothers say they feel lucky to have grown up in rural Breathitt County.
From high school, Eric went on to major in physics at Morehead State University. He then earned a master’s degree and a doctorate at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and did post-doctoral work at Yale University. He joined UCLA in 2008.
He says he now works on “harnessing quantum effects,” producing small molecules at very low temperatures that potentially could be used as “bits” in new quantum computers.
Darren finished high school, completed undergraduate studies at Centre College, then got his master’s and doctorate at Boulder in 2009. After post-doctoral studies at New Zealand’s Otago University, he worked for the University of Sydney in Australia before joining Macquarie University in 2016.
Today, he focuses on optical physics, a subject that grabbed his interest at Centre. He specializes in new kinds of lasers based on special glass fibers.
Both brothers say they feel lucky to have grown up in rural Breathitt County, where their parents were supportive and there was plenty of sunshine, fresh air and open space for the experiments that led them toward their science careers.
“Mom was always supporting us to do well in school, and she didn’t accept us not working hard,” Darren said. “Dad was always teaching us through making things.
“At the end of the day, building things in the backyard with our parents was a bigger influence than Einstein or Feynman.”
Said Eric: “I think … just being outside in nature, wondering why things are the way they are, the support I received from my parents to question things, are a large part of why I wanted to become a scientist.”
Raymond is justly proud of what his sons have accomplished, but he says he’s most impressed by the character of the men they’ve become.
“God just blessed those boys. And he blessed us by letting us know them.”