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George Lake (1953 - 2019)

George Lake died on Friday the 24th of May 2019.

Professor George Lake died of pancreatic cancer, aged 65. He was an exceptional and singular talent, a pioneer in computational science and astrophysics who will leave a lasting legacy both in his published output and through those scientists fortunate enough to have worked with him.

George was born prematurely on June 12, 1953, in Washington, D.C. Fighting against the odds to survive, he went on to become the first in his family to go into higher education. He completed a degree at Haverford College, a doctorate in physics at Princeton, and held research fellowships at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, UK. In 1981, he took up a staff position at AT&T Bell Laboratories, holding at the same time a Visiting position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Following this, in 1985, he took up a Professorship in Astronomy and Physics at the University of Washington. There, he founded the “N-body shop”, a world-leading centre in computational astrophysics, which remains one of his lasting legacies. In 2000, George moved out of astrophysics for a time, working as CIO at the Institute for Systems Biology before returning to astrophysics as the “William Band” Chair in Theoretical Physics at Washington State University in 2003. In 2005, he moved to the University of Zürich where he set up a computational science group and, in 2014, became the first director of the newly founded Institute for Computational Science.

George was a champion for junior researchers and for diversity in science. Lamenting the lack of early career prizes in Europe that are so powerful at raising up the careers of promising young scientists in the US, he co-founded the highly successful MERAC prize award in collaboration with the MERAC foundation and the European Astronomical Society. Now in its seventh year, the prize has elevated the careers of over 20 promising young researchers, many of whom have gone on to win further prizes, prestigious fellowships, and faculty jobs. George was acutely aware of the lack of women in science, and was a lifelong champion for women, mentoring and supporting early career researchers, and supporting colleagues who suffered discrimination.

George wrote many important papers, but among his favourites was work on the formation of the “Hubble sequence” of galaxies, the possible presence of a “disc” of dark matter in the Milky Way, and significant work on the metamorphosis of galaxies due to tidal “harassment” – a term coined by George. Perhaps his most famous work, however, was on the discovery of a “small scale crisis” in the Standard Cosmological Model, a puzzle that endures today. George worked across an enormous breadth of subjects, from showing that galaxy rotation curves cannot be explained by “modified gravity” theories, to the origin of high inclination Kuiper-belt objects in the Solar System. A lesser known paper that may turn out to be his most influential was one that he wrote for Nature in 1990. In this, George was the first to suggest that nearby dwarf galaxy satellites of the Milky Way are a promising place to search for dark matter particles annihilating to produce gamma-rays. Such a signature has not yet been seen, but a successful detection would be one of the most important results in modern physics.

George had a genuinely unique and creative approach to science. He would carry in his mind extensive lookup tables of constants, physical relations and key equations, often rapidly applying his knowledge of planetary dynamics to a problem on galactic scales, or vice versa. His mind moved at such a pace that it could take time for a young student or postdoctoral researcher to translate this “George speak” into some tangible action that could be applied to their research. But invariably, George was right. A classic example is when he stated, in a conversation about solar cells, that it all just works because “The Sun is about 1 electron Volt”. (By this, he meant that the Solar spectrum peaks at a wavelength of order one electron Volt which happens to be approximately the energy band gap of silicon, making silicon good for photovoltaics. Of course.)

George was tremendously kind, always helping new students and postdocs to find a flat, arranging babysitting and support for new parents, or helping with funding and careers advice. He was also very generous with his ideas, giving the very best to promising young researchers to help launch their careers. It is telling that many of his former postdoctoral researchers and students have become “household names” in their fields, some perhaps better known than George himself.

In addition to passion for science, George was obsessed with collecting things, from cars and fossils to antique computers, pinball machines and rubber ducks. Many of these collectables remain scattered all over the globe, sharing homes with his many friends and family. And this is perhaps as it should be. George loved to travel, and his global collection of exotic memorabilia will remind all who loved him of his unique and enduring impact on the world.

George is survived by his younger brother, two daughters, four grandchildren, and the love of his life, Jolanta Drzewiecka – all of whom will miss him dearly.

Obituary written by: Justin Read (University of Surrey)

I would like to thank George’s many friends and family for their helpful input and feedback, and their really wonderful stories about George.

University of Zurich