Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The passing of a great astronomer

I was concocting a thrilling tale to tell you all about dodging ice storms which would lead in to the comet now visible in broad daylight, when I was startled to receive news about the death of Don Osterbrock, a retired professor of astronomy at Lick Observatory in Santa Cruz, California.

I won't try and write obituaries, as two online (from UC Santa Cruz and Sky & Telescope magazine) are more than adequate. But I will talk a bit about Don and my interactions with him.

Although Don Osterbrock didn't win a Nobel Prize (he won almost every other award an astronomer can get, though), he was a household name among astronomers. He wrote a textbook on nebulae and active galaxies that almost every astronomer learns from at some point. He was director of Lick Observatory for many years. He was passionate about his work and astronomy (as anybody who ever made him angry can attest to). And he continued working for 15 years after his retirement, right up to the day he died.

I met Don when I arrived at UC Santa Cruz in 1997, but I got to know him much better when I moved into a grad student office right next to his office in 1999. I helped Don quite often with his computer. He used it mainly for email, and he didn't really care to use it for much more than that. Sometimes the computer would forget itself or he would need to print out an email, and he'd track me down to help. Don also was one of the few faculty members who came to listen to my thesis defense in 2002, and in my visits back to Santa Cruz since then he seemed genuinely happy to see me. Now I wish I'd stopped by more often.

Don was also known for traits that few astronomers had. When deadlines for titles of talks to be given at our annual astronomical meetings were announced, there was special recognition for those who beat Osterbrock; usually only a few people received that recognition. The rest of us were happy to get our titles in be the deadline, weeks later. Don often gave lunchtime talks at Santa Cruz about personalities in the history of Lick Observatory. Often the talks were a little dull, but buried in a slew of old pictures were anecdotes that brought the names to life. Anybody who thinks that scientists are passive people who operate only on pure reason need only read some of Don's work to see that passion and emotion often play large roles in the lives of scientists.

My thoughts are with Don's widow, Irene, a wonderful lady who I only met a few times when she would stop by for lunch or on her way home.

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