I lived in New Dorms, the old New Dorms, on Alderman Road. To us, Observatory Hill was the name of the dining hall. We knew nothing of its namesake, the small mountain rising above our rooms and board. We had no clue about the ongoing work to listen to the cosmos, enrich uranium and split the atom. Forget about fission; the only O-Hill we knew struggled to replicate a decent plate of spaghetti.

Richard Gard

Scott W. Brown (Engr ’78, ’79) came to the University of Virginia because of O-Hill, the science, not the cuisine (which is light-years better now, they say). Brown remembers leafing through a college brochure as a 16-year-old aspiring astrophysicist. It showcased O-Hill’s radio astronomy observatory, the high-speed centrifuges and UVA’s nuclear reactor. “I went, ‘Wow, this place is kind of cool,’” he recalls.

A few years later, as an engineering student, Brown became a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission-certified operator of the UVA reactor. He took an eight-hour written test. “My arm was falling off,” he says, and that was just one part of the credentialing.

It made Brown something of a celebrity in our fraternity, especially to us pledges. Our duties as uninitiated first-years included gathering around the Friday afternoon front-porch keg, legal back then for those 18 and older. One Friday Brown took a few of us to tour the reactor. The drive up Mount Jefferson, O-Hill’s historical name, was all hilarity. The facility itself played along with its ironical architecture. Since decommissioned, but still there, it’s a two-story cylinder rendered in traditional Flemish bond red brick, as if Jefferson had designed this large round building too.

Once he got us inside, Brown had a foolproof way to sober the mood, focus our attention. He handed out dosimeter badges and told us to clip them to our shirts.

I asked him recently if he ever experienced any mishaps on the mountain. In fact, yes, and it has stuck with him throughout his 43-year career in nuclear power.

He and student colleagues once assembled a flawed fuel core, the bundle of rods submerged into the reactor’s pool to create fission. It’s a careful, repetitive protocol that includes watching a needle on the control panel sweep gradually toward the desired rate of reactivity. Instead, it flipped to the maximum allowed. Brown issued a holy expletive, inserted neutron-absorbing control rods into the core, thereby stopping the chain reaction, and shut 
everything down.

“In this day and age, that would be a super-serious reactivity management event, but back in those days, we just said, ‘Well, we’re not doing that again,’ and we went home.”

The Netflix series Stranger Things, set in the same era and a town no bigger than Charlottesville, features a top-secret government compound surrounded by barbed wire. UVA had one of those too, around the bend from the reactor, a classified ultracentrifuge complex, an extension of Manhattan Project physicist Jesse Beams’ (Col 1925) work in isolating weapons-grade uranium isotopes. The Stranger Things facility is a portal to a paranormal world called “the Upside Down.”

That could have been the cover line for this issue of Virginia Magazine and Senior Editor Ed Miller’s story about O-Hill. Beyond the hush-hush testing of the laws of physics, “the Upside Down” describes one activity on the mountain that utterly defies them, bicycle motocross, our cover shot. It’s intended to produce a chain reaction that gets you to Ed’s story.

Richard Gard (Col ’81)
Vice President, Communications, UVA Alumni Association