You are here
For a significant fraction of our membership, February is probably not their favorite month. Despite being the calendrical midget with the smallest number of days, for those on the job market it probably produces the largest amount of anxiety. Indeed, the entire job search process seems to consume a larger number of months, a larger expenditure of resources, a larger amount of time, and a larger quantity of emotional energy than it did the last time I applied for a job 36 years ago. Should we reduce this burden? And, if so, how do we go about doing that? I certainly don't know the answer(s), but I think it is time to start asking the question(s).
Let's start with letters of recommendation. I've only written 79 this year for about two dozen different people (that's probably a ten-year low for me). A few were for undergraduates and (non-astronomical) employees, but most were for people in astronomy looking to advance in the profession. I know some colleagues who have written more than that number for one person! Now, I have always resisted the idea, more prevalent in the humanities, that one should write a single impersonal and generalizable letter for a grad student or postdoc and submit it to a database where anyone with a job to offer could access it. How could I maximize my student's chances by playing to my target's ego if I did that? How could I tailor my letter to make it clear how well s/he would fit into the department in question? Or is it my ego that I am stroking? Is it an enhanced version of the old-boys-network I am attempting to manipulate? Would a data bank of letters objectively assessing a candidate's accomplishments really be worse? Or should we even rely on letters as much as we do? (see Dr. Eilat Glikman's recent post to the women-in-astronomy blog for a thought-provoking comment on this latter point).
Let's next address the length of the season. It used to be that job applications were due sometime in December and offers were made by 1 March. Now the application season starts in late September and dribbles into May. Clearly this extended calendar — both for job offerers and job seekers — does not increase the research productivity of our community. Over a decade ago, the AAS sought to bring some rationality to the postdoc hiring process by promulgating a 15 February deadline before which postdoc candidates could not be asked to commit to an offer. This has largely worked (apart from a few, mostly unpunished, violators), bringing closure by the end of February for the majority of those in the postdoc market. But faculty positions are uncoordinated and some candidates are in both markets. Is a faculty search deadline desirable?
Then there is the cost in time, money, research interruption, and family stress caused by the extended interview schedule. In this skype-ready age, is it really necessary to budget $10K or $20K to bring six or seven or eight candidates to campus for a faculty search (two-thirds of a graduate student's stipend for a year)? That's two days of a candidate's time for each visit plus several times that much investment for the members of the department advertising a job. At my current start-up university (Quest University Canada), we don't have the budget for this, since we are hiring eight-ten faculty each year. We start with written materials (after clearly defining on our website what we are and are not looking for), go to 10-12 phone interview of ~20 minutes each, then to four-five Skype interviews, and only then bring the top two (or sometimes three) candidates to campus. It is clearly essential that finalists visit in person to get a feel for the place and their future colleagues, but is this really necessary for eight candidates?
Finally, it must be admitted that, with 200-300 applications per faculty job this year, there is large random element in the search process; even if one is clearly in the top 5% and applies for 15 positions, one could end up with no position in any given year. This begs the question that many do not want asked: is birth control required here? I have always (well, at least in my more mature years) argued against artificially limiting graduate student positions since, both personally, and as a department, my experience is that we are far from perfect in picking winners from among the undergraduate applications we receive. Restricted access often means restricted diversity — in gender, ethnicity, and intellectual proclivities. Departments should, of course, make admissions decisions with sufficient foresight to assure they will be able to support each admitted student through to the PhD, and in times of shrinking funding, this requires brutal honesty and collective will. But openness to those with a passion for our discipline — and openness to a variety of career paths through which to pursue it (look for upcoming resources from our Employment Committee on this point) — still seem to me the right policy for graduate programs.
Where, then, should constrictions be imposed? The American Chemical Society has recently issued a very thoughtful report on the state of their graduate education which asks a number of hard questions that I find relevant to our discipline as well.
Several of the main conclusions in the Executive Summary offer trenchant commentary:
Current educational opportunities for graduate students, viewed on balance as a system, do not provide sufficient preparation for their careers after graduate school.
The system for the financial support of graduate students, as currently operated by private, institutional, state, and federal funds, is no longer optimal for national needs.
Departments should give thoughtful attention to maintaining a sustainable relationship between the availability of new graduates at all degree levels and genuine opportunities for them. Replication in excess is wasteful of resources and does injustice to the investment made by students and society.
While the state of our discipline is not exactly analogous that in chemistry, I believe that many of the issues their report raises are worthy of our consideration and, subsequently, of our action. This is a conversation I hope to advance in the coming year.
On a completely different subject, while I doubt I can take any credit for it, I was pleased to see that voter participation nearly doubled this year compared with our last election. If we keep doubling each time, we'll pass the American voter participation rate in another few years. I must say I was not at all worried about the election results this year; we had such an outstanding slate of candidates running that any combination of winners would have served the Society well. I am delighted, however, to welcome Meg Urry and Chryssa Kouveliotou, both of whom I presented with Society prizes in January, to the leadership team, along with new Councilors Geoff Clayton, Dara Norman, and Dawn Gelino. For the first time in the Society's history, the eighteen-member Council will have equal numbers of men and women, a salutary event that should continue our momentum toward the day when our discipline sees equity as the norm.
Get your abstracts in and buy your plane tickets for Indianapolis (remarkably cheap from New York, at least). In hopes of seeing you there, I am...
The results of the latest AAS election are presented below. The Society thanks all who agreed to stand for election, for their commitment and service to the community, and congratulates the winners.
New AAS Officers and Councilors begin their terms after the Annual Members Meeting, June 2013, at the Indianapolis meeting; Meg Urry will serve for 1 year as President Elect before succeeding David Helfand as AAS President in June 2014.
C. Megan Urry
George F. (Fritz) Benedict
Dara J. Norman
Dawn M. Gelino
I recently made the transition from astrophysics researcher to data scientist for a tech company. Here are suggestions for people in academia / research who are interested in pursuing a tech job.
Most tech companies are interested in smart, talented people who can learn quickly and have good problem solving skills. Scientists have these attributes. Therefore, if you apply for a job at a tech company, your application is likely to catch the interest of a recruiter. However, once you get an interview, there are many other skills that the company will try to assess, skills that you may have (or not) already. The following are some tips which will help you in both the application /interview process, as well as on the job at a tech company.
1) Learn a Standard Language
Sorry astronomers, but IDL isn't going to cut it if you want to get a tech job. You need to learn one of the industry-standard programming languages. Python, Ruby, Java, Perl, and C++ are all good languages to pick-up. It would also be good to learn a statistical analysis package like R, SAS, SPSS or Excel as well as a visualization package to show your results. Some jobs involve a coding interview. These require some knowledge of computer science algorithms. Look online (http://blog.geekli.st/post/34361344887/how-to-crack-the-toughest-coding-...) as there are many examples of coding problems for you to practice.
2) Learn About Databases
"Big data" is the Web 2.0 it-phrase. If you want to play with big data, you are going to need to learn how to manage, handle and access it. SQL is a must. It would be great if you could also familiarize yourself with Hadoop/MapReduce and Hive.
3) Brush-up Your Stats
Many tech interviews involve doing complicated math, probability, statistics, brain-teasers and open-ended problems. Dust off some of your old statistics texts or pick up a book about data analysis using one of the above languages. Search online for past interview questions (http://www.glassdoor.com/Interview/index.htm) of the companies you are applying to.
4) Communication is Key
To be effective in a tech job, not only should you be able to program, analyze data and solve problems -- you need to easily explain your work to people who aren't very technical. Communication is incredibly important for these roles, and a huge part of the interview process is gauging how well you explain complicated ideas to a lay-person. There are many opportunities to practice this skill within academia, so give many talks, teach classes, tutor, volunteer or do whatever you can to become very comfortable explaining technical ideas to people with different backgrounds and skill levels.
5) Convert Your CV into a Resume
There is a difference, and it is important(http://chronicle.com/article/From-CV-to-R-sum-/44712). People at tech companies get hundreds of resumes. It is important to succinctly highlight the skills you bring to each job. It's great that you’ve published dozens of papers, given lots of talks and taught many classes... but what is more important are the skills you acquired from those experiences. Resumes should only be 1-2 pages. Look at the skills required for the job you are applying for, and then try to demonstrate those skills by listing the relevant experience.
6) Academic vs. Business Problems
In academia the goal is usually to get the most accurate solution possible. Time and efficiency are less important than doing something thoroughly and rigorously. In business the goal is to increase your company's value. Therefore any task must optimize both accuracy and value. This is a difficult transition for many academics to make. Spend some time reading TechCrunch (http://techcrunch.com/) and other such sites to help familiarize yourself with the various metrics and problems that tech companies care about. Be prepared to work on short deadlines and to be able to prioritize tasks in order to increase the value of your work. Keep this in mind when answering open-ended interview questions so you demonstrate your understanding of this difference.
7) Do an Internship or Project
The best way to get your foot in the door of a tech company is to do an internship. Many of the major tech companies have paid summer internships that will introduce you to this type of work, as well as teach you many of the skills mentioned above. The Insight Data Science Fellowship (http://insightdatascience.com/) is an internship specifically designed for helping academics transition into tech positions. If you are unable to take time off from your current job, then consider doing a project on your own. Create an application for your phone or do a research project with one of the many free data sources out there. This will give some insight into the work you might do at a tech company and an important set of talking points for interviews.
If you have more questions about making the transition from academia to tech or the tech interview process, feel free to contact me.
The AAS Committee on Employment is pleased to highlight useful resources for astronomers, and welcomes your comments and responses to this and previous columns. Check out our website (aas.org/jobs/) for additional resources and contact information for the committee members. We are always looking for guest columnists in non-academic careers. If you are willing to contribute, or have an idea for a future column, please contact the Employment Column Editor, Liam McDaid (email@example.com). The AAS committee on employment exists to help our members with their careers. Your ideas are important, so let’s hear them!
In response to a White Paper submitted to the Astro2010 Decadal Survey (arXiv:0909.3892), and with the support of former and current AAS Presidents Elmegreen and Helfand, a new AAS Working Group on Astroinformatics and Astrostatistics has been approved by the AAS Council at the 220th Meeting, June 2012, in Anchorage.
The motivation for this WG is the growing importance of the interface between astronomy and various branches of applied mathematics and computer science. With the new data-intensive projects envisioned for the coming decade, the need for advice derived from the focused attention of a group of AAS members who work in these areas is bound to increase.
The Working Group is charged with developing and spreading awareness of the applications of advanced computer science, statistics and allied branches of applied mathematics to further the goals of astronomical and astrophysical research. The Working Group may interact with other academic, international, or governmental organizations, as appropriate, to advance the fields of astroinformatics and astrostatistics. It must report to the AAS Council annually on its activities, and is encouraged to make suggestions and proposals to the AAS leadership on ways to enhance the utility and visibility of its activities.
The three main strategic goals for this WG over the next few years are to (i) develop, organize and maintain methodological resources (such as software tools, papers, books, and lectures), (ii) enhance human resources (such as foster the creation of career paths, establish a Speakers' Bureau, establish and maintain an archived discussion forum, enable periodic news distribution) and (iii) organize topical meetings.
The initial organizational work will be facilitated by the Steering Committee. The Steering Committee includes nine members, initially appointed by Council, and in successive three-years staggered terms, nominated by the Working Group and confirmed by the AAS Council. The initial Committee members include Zeljko Ivezic (chair), Kirk Borne, George Djorgovski, Eric Feigelson, Eric Ford, Alyssa Goodman, Aneta Siemiginowska, Alex Szalay, and Rick White.
Internal discussions and news dissemination will be enabled by an archived e-mail exploder hosted by AAS. All AAS members with interest in these fields are invited to join this Working Group and its exploder by sending an email request to Zeljko Ivezic, firstname.lastname@example.org.
WGAA news that is published on the AAS website will also be distributed as Email Notifications. AAS members receive these notification by subscribing to the Astroinformatics and Astrostatistics category (http://aas.org/publications/email-notifications).
New developments and other relevant material will also be accessible from The Astrostatistics and Astroinformatics Portal (http://asaip.psu.edu).
NSF and the ABCs of Sequestration
At this writing, on 27 February, the U.S. Government is nearing the 1 March deadline for across-the-board reductions in the U.S. budget, known as “sequestration.” Those inside the Washington Beltway are more familiar than others with this situation, so it seems worthwhile to summarize for AAS readers the basics of sequestration and its possible effects on NSF and AST. The impact for the NSF community has been summarized by the NSF Director, Dr. Subra Suresh, in a notice entitled “Impact of FY 2013 Sequestration Order on NSF Awards.” As the document states, the impact of sequestration would be a budget reduction of approximately 5% for NSF appropriations in Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 (1 October 2012 through 30 September 2013), relative to the FY 2012 budget. Three core principles, reproduced below, are being used by NSF:
- Protect commitments to NSF’s core mission and maintain existing awards;
- Protect the NSF workforce; and
- Protect STEM human capital development programs.
In following the first principle above, again quoting the Director’s memo, “all continuing grant increments in FY 2013 will be awarded, as scheduled, and there will be no impact on existing NSF standard grants.” As the Director also states, “the major impact of sequestration will be seen in reductions to the number of new research grants and cooperative agreements awarded in FY 2013.”
With regard to the second principle, unlike most federal agencies and universities, the NSF spends only a very small fraction of its budget (approximately 6%) on internal agency costs. Thus, in contrast to media reports of extensive furlough plans in other agencies, it is much less likely that such actions will be necessary in NSF.
The third principle places at high priority early career awards. For AST, the result of this principle is that we are in the process of making FY 2013 awards in the following programs: CAREER; Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellowships; and Research Experiences for Undergraduates sites.
Given the uncertainty in budget prospects, the community should expect award decisions in other programs to be made much later this year than is customary or desirable. In making difficult choices regarding possible changes in the AST portfolio balance, we will continue to be guided by the latest decadal surveys and their application to ongoing and future capabilities, as recommended by the recent AST Portfolio Review.
Other AST Budget News
The U.S. Government currently is operating under a Continuing Resolution that expires on 27 March, with no full-year appropriation yet in place for FY 2013. The interaction of a final FY 2013 appropriation (or continuing resolution) with sequestration is dependent on legislative action. It also has been reported in the media that the President’s budget request for FY 2014 (the year beginning 1 October 2013) will be submitted to Congress in late March. Readers should remember that the eventual FY 2011 and FY 2012 budgets for AST were significantly below the President’s requests.
Additional AST News
In spite of budget uncertainties, the business of AST continues. The following items are of note; see the NSF web site for further information:
- The definition and interpretation of proposal merit-review criteria changed significantly in January 2013, and will have an impact on all proposals submitted after that date. Proposal submission procedures in FastLane also have been changed, with additional on-line forms for items such as the Project Summary, and additional automated checking of compliance with published NSF policies.
- All award reports now must be submitted via the Research.gov portal rather than the NSF FastLane portal.
- A new solicitation (NSF 13-539) has been issued for the FY 2013 program on Enhancing Access to the Radio Spectrum (EARS); proposals in response to this solicitation are due on May 14. In the 2012 competition, two of the 24 awards were directly related to passive spectrum use, and several others were related to mitigation of radio-frequency interference.
- Management competitions for Gemini, NRAO, and NOAO are under way. Interested community members and potential proposers should see the various Dear Colleague Letters that are posted on the AST web site. We expect additional letters to be posted within the next few weeks.
- Official inauguration of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array will take place on 13 March 2013.
- The annual report of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC) will be submitted to Congress and the agencies by 15 March, and may be found on the AAAC site soon after its release.
- There has been significant AST staff turnover in the past six months. Drs. Jeff Pier and Tom Gergely have retired, while Drs. Scott Fisher, Don Terndrup and Katharina Lodders have recently concluded their terms as rotators at NSF. We thank all these individuals for their service to NSF and to the community. Drs. Glen Langston and Ilana Harrus started work as permanent NSF employees in February, and Dr. David Boboltz will join AST in a similar capacity in March. Dr. Dan Evans of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics joined AST as a rotator last September.
- Dr. Patricia Knezek will start work as the new Deputy Division Director (DDD) for AST on 11 March. We thank Dr. Dana Lehr for serving as Acting DDD for the past year while simultaneously continuing many of her other duties within the division.
- The NSF Director, Dr. Subra Suresh, will be leaving the Foundation at the end of March to take up an appointment (beginning in July) as President of Carnegie Mellon University.
The Spring 2013 edition of the newsletter (Number 77) of the IAU Commission on Education and Development is available at the Commission 46 website. It is in PDF format and can be downloaded, along with past newsletters. The new editor of the newsletter, which is distributed worldwide, is Larry Marschall of Gettysburg College.
— Jay Pasachoff, US National Liaison to IAU Commission 46 on Education and Development
The American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) invites your participation in our "Professional Astronomer Survey of 2013." Your opinions and comments about the AAVSO's data offerings, services, software, and other activities are being solicited. Responses to our survey will be used to improve the offerings and services that the AAVSO provides to the global research community.
We will collect responses to the survey through 15 April 2013, and will post results and analysis on the AAVSO website in mid-May 2013.
To participate in the survey please visit: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/FPNX7FY
To learn more about the AAVSO, please visit our website at: http://www.aavso.org
The current deadline for submitting observing proposals to the National Solar Observatory is 15 May 2013 for the third quarter of 2013. Information is available from the NSO Telescope Allocation Committee at P.O. Box 62, Sunspot, NM 88349 for Sacramento Peak facilities (email@example.com) or P.O. Box 26732, Tucson, AZ 85726 for Kitt Peak facilities (firstname.lastname@example.org).
For full instructions see the Observing at the NSO page.
The most frequently accessed, specific instructions include:
- The Observing Request Form
- Users' Manual for the SP facilities
- Users' Manual for the KP facilities
- The Observing-run evaluation form for the SP facilities.
Proposers are reminded that each quarter is typically oversubscribed, and it is to the proposer's advantage to provide all information requested to the greatest possible extent no later than the official deadline. Observing time at National Observatories is provided as support to the astronomical community by the National Science Foundation.
The IUPAP Young Scientist Medal of 2013 and Award of 1,000 EUR will be awarded for a scientist working in the field of astrophysics. The winner will be invited to give a presentation of scientific achievements at the 27th Texas Symposium on Relativistic Astrophysics (8-13 December 2013 in Dallas, U.S.A.).
The nominated candidate must not have completed more than eight years of research after their doctorate by December 2013. Interruptions for military service, family emergencies, etc (but not teaching) are allowed. One Medal cannot be shared between several candidates.
Nominations may be made by anyone with an interest in the field. Self-nominations are not permitted, but a candidate could ask a mentor or colleague to provide a nomination.
The nomination papers must include:
- A citation of approximately 50 words.
- Curriculum vitae of the candidate, which must not exceed two pages in length.
- List of 6 of the candidate’s most significant publications, including citation information, not to exceed one page.
- Commentary on the publications, which makes the case for the award, not to exceed two pages.
- Two letters of support (up to a maximum of three pages), at least one of which must come from someone not at the nominee's institution and not a mentor or significant collaborator.
The documents must be collated into a single pdf file called Surname_ysm.pdf, where Surname is the candidate’s name. The file must not exceed 2MB in size.
Nominations not conforming to these rules cannot be accepted.
The Medal winners will be selected by a committee composed of the members of
the IUPAP Astrophysics Committee (C19).
Nominations should be sent on or before the 1 June to the C19 Secretary and Chair of the Award committee (Grazina Tautvaisiene) by e-mail to email@example.com.
Reprinted with permission from Vanderbilt University.
Douglas S. Hall, professor of physics and astronomy, emeritus, and former director of Vanderbilt Dyer Observatory, died March 16 after a brief illness. He was 72.
Hall was a distinguished astronomer and scientist credited with several significant discoveries. He and his student researcher became the first to measure the mass and diameter of a very young double star, and then to demonstrate observationally that such very young stars assume a flat, toroidal shape during their early stages. “My analysis has revealed, quite unexpectedly, that one of the two stars is shaped like a doughnut, presumably as a result of extremely rapid spinning,” Hall told the Tennessean in 1971. The discovery made national news headlines.
Hall was the co-discoverer of star spots (similar to sunspots) on stars, proposing that such spots were responsible for variations in the stars’ brightness. His work was key to establishing the origin of variability on close binary stars known as RS Canum Venaticorum variable stars. His working definition for them is still used today.
In addition to his many research interests, Hall served as director of Dyer Observatory for more than 15 years. His role at Dyer not only allowed him to do hands-on research, but it also made him the public face of all things celestial in the Nashville area.
Hall loved to share his knowledge with people, recalled Rocky Alvey, who was hired by Hall in 2000 and today is director of Dyer. “He was a very gentle, wonderful man—we’re about public outreach here—and he was great with the public,” Alvey said. “Some of my best memories are of hearing him get questions at public nights, or when we’d get calls about a meteor or something someone saw in the sky. Some of the questions were very out there, about UFOs or such, and he always dealt with them with a lot of tact or a little humor. He never made the person feel like they’d asked a stupid question.”
That joy of sharing astronomy with the public also was evident in his work with amateur astronomers. Hall encouraged backyard astronomers to contribute to his research and other scientific knowledge. He is credited for forging bonds between professional and amateur astronomers and was the founder and longtime leader of the International Amateur–Professional Photoelectric Photometry Group.
“He was the first astronomer to actively recruit and train amateur astronomers to make the kind of measurements needed to gather data,” said Gregory Henry, one of Hall’s graduate students who is now astronomer at the Center of Excellence in Information Systems at Tennessee State University. “This is now common, these citizen scientists, amateurs who are commonly assisting with scholarly research. He mentored amateur astronomers and harnessed the capabilities of what was there.
“He was also the first professional astronomer to take advantage of robotic telescopes. He would meet with amateurs across the country, and it was in such a meeting that the idea about creating an automated telescope first came about. In astronomy, researchers and amateurs would have to stay up all night, take measurements, write them down—it was tedious,” Henry said. “Lou Boyd in Phoenix succeeded in building the first telescope (in 1983) that could take the measurements that Doug and I needed.” Hall put Boyd and his telescope to work capturing data on 75 stars over four years. The consistent, accurate and efficient results proved to be a technological breakthrough for the time, prompting Hall to apply for and be awarded a National Science Foundation grant for an automatic photoelectric telescope for Vanderbilt in 1987.
“He was a giver of his time and expertise, not just with me but with the other graduate students and a bevy of amateur astronomers,’’ Henry said. “Doug was a teacher as well as a researcher. He loved to explain things in his area of expertise.”
In addition to his accomplishments in astronomy, Hall also served on various committees at Vanderbilt. “Doug was a valued colleague on the administrative committee for seven years, where his concern for the well-being of undergraduate students was clearly evident,” said M. Fräncille Bergquist, associate dean of the College of Arts and Science. “He was generous with his time, perceptive with his observations and kind with his decisions.” Adminstratively, as chair of the academic standards and procedures committee from 1979 to 1982, he was instrumental in the revision of Vanderbilt’s grading system from a 3.0 scale to its current 4.0 scale.
A native of Kentucky, Hall studied chemistry at Swarthmore College before turning to his lifelong passion of astronomy. While earning a master’s and doctorate in astronomy at Indiana University, he spent his summers studying and working at Harvard College Observatory and Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. He joined Vanderbilt’s College of Arts and Science in 1967 as assistant professor of astronomy and was later promoted to professor. He was named professor of physics and astronomy, emeritus, in 2002, upon his retirement from Vanderbilt.
A distinguished researcher and lifelong scholar, Hall never stopped investigating and learning new things. He was a caver, voracious reader and classical music aficionado who played classical music at night while he made his observations, according to his wife, Mimi Kemp Hall, whom he met when she was registrar of the College of Arts and Science. In his retirement, he became interested in Civil War history, in particular the Battle of Nashville, and working outdoors in the woods on the Halls’ property. Hall was also the author of two books and more than 400 scientific papers on astronomy.
“So many people look at the world and look at it through filters. He wanted to look at the truth,” Alvey said. “He was a great scientist. He looked at the stars and didn’t bring his preconceptions. He wanted to know what they were—the objective truth.”
He is survived by his wife; two sons, Bruce Douglas Hall and Brandon Scott Hall; one sister; and a brother.
Submitted by Nancy Wise
An obituary is being prepared by the AAS Historical Astronomy Division. Contact the Chair of the Obituary Committee to supply or request additional information.
Reprinted with permission from the American Institute of Physics.
Donat Gotthard Wentzel died of a rapidly developing cancer on 20 February 2013 in Glenwood, Maryland. Although renowned for his work in plasma astrophysics, in particular on cosmic magnetism and electrical currents flowing in interstellar space and in the Sun’s corona, Don considered his educational activities to be among his most important contributions.
Don was born on 25 June 1934 in Zürich, Switzerland, where his father, Gregor Wentzel, was a professor of physics at the University of Zürich. In the late 1940s, the family moved to Chicago. There Don quickly learned English and picked up what was needed to earn his BS, MS, and PhD, all in physics, at the University of Chicago. His thesis, under the guidance of Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, was on hydromagnetic equilibria. During his graduate years, he spent a year in Leiden, the Netherlands. After finishing his PhD in 1960, he worked for six years at the University of Michigan; in 1964 he became an associate professor there. He and his family moved to Maryland in 1966, where Don was a professor in the astronomy department at the University of Maryland until his retirement.
The study of acceleration processes of charged particles in the Sun and in supernovae stimulated Don’s interest in kinetic plasma theory in the early 1960s. Later that decade his work on cosmic-ray propagation became his first major mark on the astrophysics community. The effect of resonant proton scattering by Alfvén waves led him to propose, in his seminal 1974 paper, the concept of self-confinement of cosmic rays in the galaxy: Relativistic particles do not spread with the speed of light but are trapped in wavepackets and diffuse through space with the Alfvén velocity. In the 1970s coronal heating in the Sun caught Don’s attention; he soon realized that the corona is so inhomogeneous that Alfvén waves could not explain the heating and that a new approach was necessary.
Don provided significant insights into hydromagnetic surface waves, including their coupling to other waves and their dissipation. He also became interested in kinetic problems of solar-flare radio emissions and developed a theory for noise storms that was translated into Chinese at the time and is still cited today. He liked to play with new ideas; his application of percolation theory to the development of solar active regions is still being discussed.
Typical for his approach was his theoretical derivation of plasma phenomena from first principles. He did not just refer to the highly cryptic theories from laboratory plasma physics at that time but wanted to understand the physics thoroughly. He was always thinking about how he would explain a concept to his students.
Combining his experience in science and teaching, Don wrote The Restless Sun (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), which was named Book of the Year by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.
Countless students remember Don fondly. He patiently supported young people struggling to enter science. In addition to teaching and mentoring Maryland’s undergraduates and graduates in astronomy, he helped to develop an astronomy course for nonscience majors. That course proved extremely popular, at one time attracting more than 3000 students per year. As part of the course, he created activities and labs based on astronomical photographs and other data. He helped set up similar courses nationally and internationally, which often left him with only the summer months for research.
Don was an ambassador of Western astronomy to the rest of the world. Spending a half-year sabbatical in India in 1973 opened his eyes to teaching astronomy in less privileged countries. He became involved with the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU’s) Commission on the Teaching of Astronomy in the 1970s. As commission president starting in 1979, he supported the teaching of astronomy as a medium for science education in scientifically developing countries, and he remained intimately involved in that work through the last years of his professional career.
He organized or taught at eight of the IAU’s International Schools for Young Astronomers. Classes were held in hot and badly equipped lecture rooms during the day, and hands-on experiments were conducted behind simple telescopes during the tropical nights. Don’s rich experience in teaching astrophysics brought to each school clear academic goals and tight fiscal management.
Don supervised visiting-lecturer programs in Peru and Paraguay and helped to develop astronomy curricula in Vietnam, Morocco, the Philippines, and several Central American countries. Tirelessly, he gave a series of lectures during three-week visits to China, Egypt, Iran, Kenya, and other countries. He initiated individual programs with local astronomers, negotiated annual programs and budgets with the IAU, and identified suitable advisers. His goal was a sustainable development in education, and in many countries the legacy of his work is still growing. Many of his students are now teaching classes themselves. In recognition of his extensive efforts in astronomy education, the American Astronomical Society honored Don with its 2003 George Van Biesbroeck Prize for his “long-term extraordinary or unselfish service to astronomy.”
A joyful and peaceful person, Don helped many people whom he met along the way. He was also a connoisseur of good wine. In his honor, his family asks that you buy a good bottle of wine, share it with someone you love, and toast to your memories. Prost, Don!