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Arthur R. Upgren (1933 - 2017)

Arthur Upgren died on Saturday the 21st of January 2017.

Arthur R. Upgren, Jr., who pursued a career-long interest in the structure of the Galaxy, luminosity function of nearby stars, and stellar parallax, passed away on 21 January 2017, a month before his 84th birthday, following an extended illness that ultimately led to heart failure. Upgren was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on 21 February 1933, the second child of Arthur P. Upgren, an economics professor at the University of Minnesota, and Marion (Andrews) Upgren, a housewife. He was raised in Minneapolis, except for several years during World War II, when his father was posted to governmental service in Washington, D. C and New York City. He graduated from the University of Minnesota High School.

Upgren’s early interest and eventual career objectives in astronomy were stoked by his neighbor, and later undergraduate instructor at the University of Minnesota, Willem Jacob Luyten (1899-1994), a pioneer in the determination of the luminosity function of stars in the Galaxy. In his 1995 obituary of Luyten in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (Vol. 107), Upgren details his winding vocational path: “It was [Luyten], in the Spring of 1940, who pointed out to me, [then seven years old], the five naked-eye planets strung along the ecliptic in the western sky at dusk. Later that year, he invited me to see Jupiter and Saturn through the 10-inch refractor of the University of Minnesota. Yet ten years afterward, when I matriculated at the university, I still had no thought of it as a profession and took up engineering instead. After three years of a mediocre record based squarely upon a lack of interest, I considered astronomy as a career. Some among my family were not altogether keen on this; idiosyncrasy and marginal employment seemed to characterize astronomers to them and to the world. Nonetheless, when I approached [Luyten] about a change of careers, he promptly said, ‘You get the heck out of engineering and into astronomy where you belong.’ I have never regretted taking his advice.”

Upgren completed a combined bachelor's degree in astronomy, physics, and mathematics in 1955. During his undergraduate years at the University of Minnesota, he measured the positions and proper motions of many stars, as part of Luyten’s involvement in the Bruce Proper Motion Survey. He also alerted Luyten that the geographic coordinates listed in the Nautical Almanac and Astronomical Ephemeris for the department’s 10-inch Brashear refractor were outdated, the telescope having been relocated around 1930. Upon graduation, Upgren went on to obtain his Master's degree in astronomy in 1958 from the University of Michigan, where he developed an interest in galactic structure. He received his Ph.D. in astronomy from the Case Institute of Technology, now Case-Western Reserve University, in 1961. His PhD thesis, under the direction of Jason Nassau, was titled, The Space Distribution of Late-Type Stars at the North Galactic Pole, and appeared in article form in the Astronomical Journal in 1962. Following his Ph.D. degree, he held research positions at Swarthmore College, U.S. Naval Observatory, and the University of South Florida, where his interests in astrometry were furthered by sequential interactions with Peter van de Kamp (1901-1995), Kaj Strand (1907-2000), and Heinrich Eichhorn (1927-1999). He also taught at the University of Maryland and George Washington University.

In 1966, Upgren accepted a faculty position at Wesleyan University, taking over a stellar-parallax program that had languished for about two years following Heinrich Eichhorn’s departure. For the self-described “young Turk,” it was “a chance to do research pretty much of my own plan.” Upgren served as de facto Department Chair and Director of the Van Vleck Observatory during the frequent travels of senior faculty member Thornton Page, then assumed the official directorship in 1973. Horace A. Smith, professor emeritus of astronomy at Michigan State University and a former student of Upgren's observed: “Art played a vital role in keeping astronomy going at Wesleyan at a time when support from the university administration was wavering.”

Upgren himself recognized the precariousness of his research program: “Astrometric research consists of examining the motions of stars. And one had to wait for the stars to move, and stars move very slowly; so that a university engaged in astrometric research has to plan in terms of decades rather than years. As a result, I think any time when you have such an uncertainty, both of the extension of the department and of the staff within that department, you are bound to have the program affected adversely, because you are always left with the decision: Should I put the emphasis in terms of long-term observations, which may never be examined by anyone if the department ceases to exist, or should I switch over to short-term work, continue to work on the observations which have been made and put the emphasis there?” (AIP interview, Neils Bohr Library, 1977.)

As it happened, the administrative plans for termination of the Wesleyan astronomy department were never implemented. In 1982, Upgren was named John Monroe Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy, and held the title until his retirement in 2000. He served as president of IAU Commission 24, Photographic Astronomy, from 1985 to 1988, and Chairman of the AAS Division of Dynamical Astronomy, from 1989 to 1990.

Upgren was author or co-author of 285 publications in the astronomical literature, including one that appeared in 2016, shortly before his death. In 1983, he organized and co-edited the very successful IAU Colloquium No. 76, entitled "The Nearby Stars and the Stellar Luminosity Function," and did the same for several other conferences dealing with astrometry and galactic structure. For several decades, he directed NSF-funded studies that used Wesleyan’s 20-inch Clark refractor to determine trigonometric parallaxes of the nearby stars, with a concentration on the late-type K-dwarfs discovered by Alexander Vyssotsky (1888-1973) at the University of Virginia’s McCormick Observatory. He also collaborated in an international effort to understand systematic differences in trigonometric parallaxes among observatories through parallax observations of Hyades cluster members.

Upgren took his teaching obligations to heart. Shortly after Upgren’s arrival at Wesleyan, Dirk Brouwer, Director of the Yale University Observatory, died and Upgren traveled to New Haven to teach courses in celestial mechanics. He revitalized the astronomy course offerings for Wesleyan undergraduates, which resulted in a leap in class enrollment from 9 students in 1968-69 to 81 students in 1969-70. During the latter period, Upgren shouldered a load of five course sections himself, with colleague Herbert J. Rood and a research associate assigned to the remaining three. He was acknowledged to be an outstanding adviser to Wesleyan undergraduates and Masters-degree candidates in astronomy. A substantial number of his Masters-degree students went on to earn their Ph.D.s at other institutions and have pursued successful careers in the field. His objective and detailed letters of recommendation were always instrumental in evaluating potential students for their Ph.D.s in astronomy.

In addition to his research, teaching, and advising, Upgren had a keen interest in protecting the night sky from light pollution. He wrote a well-reviewed popular book, published in 2002, entitled The Turtle and the Stars: Observations of an Earthbound Astronomer, which among its diverse topics, discusses the influence of light pollution on the breeding habits of leatherback turtles. He was an active member of the International Dark Sky Association and a tireless advocate for astronomy-friendly lighting on the Wesleyan campus. A previous book, Night has a Thousand Eyes, from 1998, is a primer on naked-eye astronomy, rich with literary and cultural references. 

Upgren was known for his wry sense of humor. Peter B. Stetson, a former student of Upgren’s, now principal research officer of the Herzberg Institute at Canada's Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, recalls that “Art was quite sociable outside the academic environment. As a department (faculty, grad students, and undergraduates), we spent many pleasant hours playing games like chess, Risk, and Diplomacy, both in the department offices and at Art's home. As a supervisor he was calm and laid back (as we said in those days), but expected high-quality work.”

A press release by Upgren’s former colleagues William van Altena, William Herbst, Edward Weiss, and Phillip Lu noted that “Arthur loved to travel, read and listen to classical music, and he was an ardent Red Sox and Patriots fan. He was also a strong supporter of many environmental initiatives.” Upgren’s friend Jim Gutmann, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Emeritus, echoed these sentiments and added that “Art … could be counted on to provide explanations of many matters astrometric and meteorological.” Upgren is survived by his wife, Joan, his daughter Amy and her husband Dave, and his two grandchildren, Max and Ella.

Photo credit: Wesleyan University Library, Special Collections & Archives


Wesleyan University, Van Vleck Observatory
Obituary Written By: 
Alan Hirshfeld (University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth)
BAAS: BAAS, 2017, 49, 005