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Edwin E. Salpeter (1924 - 2008)

Edwin Salpeter died on Wednesday the 26th of November 2008.

Edwin E. Salpeter, who died 26 November 2008 at his home in Ithaca, NY, belonged to the "second wave" of Jewish scientific refugees from Nazi-dominated Europe, those who left as children just before the onset of WWII and so completed their educations elsewhere. Salpeter was born in Vienna on 3 December 1924, and arrived with his family in Australia in 1939, his father was a physicist and a close friend of Erwin Schrodinger. In Australia, he finished high school, and he entered the University of Sydney at the early age of 16. He received his BS and MSc degrees in physics and mathematics from the University of Sydney, before moving on to a PhD from the University of Birmingham in 1948, for work with Rudolf Peierls on the electrodynamic self-energy of the electron, the first of more than 380 inventoried publications. He had chosen Birmingham over Cambridge or Oxford because of Peierls, and then chose Cornell over Princeton because of Hans Bethe's presence there. His autobiography describes those as two of his very best decisions ever. Marrying psychobiology student Miriam (Mika) Mark less than a year after arriving at Cornell was surely the third, and they remained in Ithaca the rest of their lives, eventually collaborating on some projects in neurobiology before her death in 2000. Their household was a secular one, but (Ed told a colleague) their two daughters received a basic Jewish education "just in case." Daughter Shelley Salpeter and her son Nicholas Buckley were also collaborators with Salpeter on 21st century projects in meta-analysis, epidemiology, and other statistics-heavy problems in biomedicine. Ed Salpeter is survived by his second wife, Antonia (Lhamo) Shouse.

Astronomers may be interested to learn that the Cornell press release announcing his death was prepared by Lauren Gold, daughter of Thomas Gold (and Carrie Gold) the co-author of the steady state theory. Apparently, Ed's father Jakob Salpeter late in life considered the anisotropy reported in the Cosmic Microwave Background and wrote in 1968 to Ron Bracewell and Edward Conklin, who had measured it, expressing puzzlement and doubt that there could be preferred frame effects within special relativity.

Ed Salpeter described himself as a generalist, always ready to look at new problems in new fields, and a young colleague quoted him as saying there were problems to be solved on backs of envelopes of various sizes.
The result was that he made significant contributions in quantum electro- dynamics (the Bethe-Salpeter equation), nuclear physics (electron screening corrections) and astrophysics (helium burning and beyond), stellar populations (the Salpeter initial mass function and galactic chemical evolution), ionospheric physics (his most-cited paper, because of a Raman-like backscatter effect that is useful for measuring electron densities in laboratory plasmas), equations of state for dense matter (e.g. Jovian planet cores), neutrino emission processes, black hole accretion as an AGN energy source (contemporary with a similar idea from Zeldovich, and before the black hole name had even been coined), interstellar atomic and molecular gas, HI rotation curves, and other aspects of astrophysical dark matter. This is not a complete list!

In 2004 a special symposium was organized by his students and colleagues near Siena, Italy, to celebrate the 50 years since his publication of the Initial Mass Function that coincided with his 80th birthday. The symposium proceedings 'The Initial Mass Function: 50 Years Later' was dedicated to Ed 'from whom we have learned so much, to his insight and friendship'.

Ed Salpeter received a security clearance in the mid-1950's and kept it up, so that, in addition to evaluating various anti-ballistic-missile defense schemes as a member of the JASONS, he was one of 17 participants in the 1985-87 APS study of directed energy weapons, also known as Star Wars. The panel was unanimous in technical disapproval of the project, and many undoubtedly shared Ed's moral disapproval. His 21 year term as the astrophysics member of the editorial board of Reviews of Modern Physics (1971-92) remains a record and arose from a combination of extremely good judgment and patience with authors, referees, and other editors. His experience as a member of the National Science Board (1978-84) was a less happy one, and he felt he had not been an effective one when the NSF decided to back out of supporting a national-facility large millimeter dish, leaving that territory to individual university groups and the Europeans.

How many students did Ed Salpeter have? Well, lots. He was advisor or committee chair for students in computer and geological sciences as well as in physics and astronomy, and was sometimes part of teams he called "two chiefs and one Indian" for additional students. No complete list seems to exist, but the incomplete lists add up to at least 55. Of those, you are likely to have heard of or know (because we do!): Hubert Reeves (who has great-grandstudents of his own!), George Helou, Vahe Petrosian, Bill Newman, Nathan Krumm, Bruce Tarter, Jonathan Katz, Lars Bildsten, Allen Boozer, Bruce Draine, Robert Gould, Nicolas Krall, Richard Lovelace, David Stevenson, Hugh Van Horn, Lyle Hoffman, and Edvige Corbelli. Thus he lived to achieve that mark of maturity, being invited to retirement parties for ones students. Former students, collaborators, and all spoke uniformly of his generosity, quick understanding, and willingness to discuss science on any and all occasions.

Among the honors Ed Salpeter received were four honorary D.Sc.'s, five academy memberships, and major prizes from the Royal Astronomical Society, the American Astronomical Society, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the American Physical Society, the Royal Swedish Academy, and the Astronomische Gesellschaft (AG). The text of his AG lecture was published in English, but he told one of us that he felt he no longer had a native language, because he couldn't really think in German any more, but his English was noticeably accented. EES was not the only Nazi refugee astronomer to deliver the (Karl) Schwarzschild lecture. Martin Schwarzshild (who had a Goettingen PhD) provided his lecture in German, but a 1968 speaker, Peter A.G. Scheuer (who left Germany at age 9) was asked to continue in English after the first two sentences.

In his long and spectacularly productive life Ed Salpeter remained a modest person who loved to have a good time, on the ski slopes, or throwing large parties at his home. Most of all he enjoyed working closely with his students who have been deeply inspired by his keen intuition.

Affiliations: 

Cornell University

Obituary Written By: 
Virginia Trimble (University of California, Irvine), Yervant Terzian (Cornell University)
BAAS: BAAS, 2009, 41, 1208
DOI: 
BAASOBIT2009029