Tuesday, September 27, 2011

In Memoriam: A Tough Year for Planetary Science in Tucson

The ephemeral Ocotillo flower as photographed by the author in 2005 on Tower Peak in the Tucson Mountain Range. The spiny stalks of the Ocotillo appear dry and dead to the casual observer for most of the year, but within hours of rainfall they burst into life.

Until a couple of years ago, my planetary science heart belonged entirely to that little valley in Arizona tucked in between the Santa Catalinas, the Tucsons, the Rincons and the Santa Ritas. But it has been a difficult year for that city and for my alma mater. This past year has seen the passing of several great planetary scientists from the Tucson community both from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and the Planetary Science Institute.


On December 14th of last year, it was Donald Hunten who died. He was a researcher whom I did not know but with whom I shared the twin passions of atmospheric and planetary science. I also learned that we had canadian roots in common and had spent time in London, ON at the University of Western Ontario. It is interesting and perhaps a little sad how often you don't realize the similarities between yourself and others until they are gone.

More recently, Tom Geherls passed away on July 11. He had had a long and distinguished career at the University of Arizona. In April, he was honored for 50 years of service with the university, a milestone that is almost unheard of these days. While I had spoken with Tom a few times, those occasions tended towards administrative matters and I cannot say that I knew him well. Still, I will not forget his office, unique at LPL, decorated with tapestries from his travels. Perhaps a little of the man inside was on display there.

Both of these researchers had made many contributions to planetary science and had led rewarding and full lives. Each was honoured with celebrations at LPL of their life and achievements. Furthermore, from the outpouring of sympathies at their passing, it was clear that they had made many friends and supportive colleagues over the years. But neither of them were young - Donald was 85 and Tom was 86 - and unfortunately, the past year has also seen two Tucson-based colleagues taken from us before their time.

I'll talk a little more at length about Mike Drake, who passed away this past Wednesday (September 21) at the age of 65, and Betty Pierazzo who died suddenly and tragically at the age of 47 on May 15 of this year. I was a colleague of each, but not a close friend and will therefore leave the eulogizing to those better suited to the task. Instead, I thought I might share a brief description of my connection to each and a personal story or two and how I was affected by them.
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Let's start with Betty. For the first few years of my graduate experience, she was someone who just happened to be around the department; someone you might see at a Journal Club or in the halls. She had graduated several years before I had arrived and was working at the Planetary Science Institute. Since she worked with cratering processes, she was a common collaborator for many of the graduate students interested in planetary surfaces. She was also an enthusiastic supporter of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory Conference (LPLC) and could always be counted on to give a talk.

Later, in 2006, I got to know her better as one of the TAs assigned to a NATS course she taught. Through that experience I acquired an appreciation of just how much effort went into teaching and how to structure material for non-science majors. Betty was a good teacher both for the students and for myself - she made it look easy. She was always ready and willing to answer any question a student had.

I can remember the group of us, the three TAs and her, together sitting around her kitchen table laughing and joking as we prepared to grade exams. She was always willing to give a student the benefit of the doubt on an answer, much more so than we grads were. We never feared a late night grading over at her apartment because at the first hint of exhaustion she would bring out an Italian stove-top coffee maker and whip us up espresso.

I admit that I envied her the easy camaraderie she shared with her collaborators and friends. The evidence of such friendships we scattered around her house. I can remember, in particular, a pair of photographs from Antarctica which were a gift from Gordon Osinski (for whom I now work) which she had framed and hung on her wall.

After the course finished up, we began to meet up frequently to play tennis together. It was a good match since our skill level at the sport was similar - we were both terrible! However, the matches made for some fun times and we picked them back up when I returned to Tucson for the Phoenix mission in the summer of 2008.

The greatest shock of the news in May was the suddenness of Betty's passing. Many of us had a difficult time reconciling the energetic and enthusiastic person we knew with the fact that she was gone. For me, that passion was inspiring. Here was someone dedicated about their work and in it for the long haul. She showed us that persistence really can pay off and was building an impressive career, most recently as an adjunct professor at the University of Arizona.

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Let's move on to Mike. When I arrived at LPL in 2003, Mike had been at the laboratory for over thirty years and had been head and director for nine. As a result, I feel like I owe him a great deal for helping to create the environment in which I figured out what I wanted to do with my life. The more I see of the academic world as part of my postdoctoral work, the more I realize how rare an experience that is.

As graduate students, our main group interaction with Mike was at the town-hall style graduate meetings. In these, he would tell us what the department and the university were up to and what difficult decisions loomed. He never held back at these meetings or sugar coated the truth, but instead laid out everything in complete detail. During and afterwards, he would gladly answer any questions we had. This, together with his willingness to take the time to talk to any of us he passed in the hallways, made us feel included and valued and it gave us a voice.  It's a lesson I won't soon forget, and I think that this posture has contributed heavily to the success of the graduates of the department. After all, we didn't just feel like we were training to be part of the community of planetary science; we were already accepted members. This faith, in part, gave us the confidence to go out and feel that we could contribute to our field.

This faith was also something that I had the chance to personally experience. You see, Mike and I also crossed paths professionally on a few occasions in discussing water delivery to the terrestrial planets. I had done some work in Bob Brown's lab on understanding the isotopic ratios of dusty water ice as an analogue to comets to determine if these could be a source. And in my 3rd year I realized that my work was also applicable to Mars. Unfortunately, I needed some dedicated equipment if I was really going to get my teeth into this side of the problem. After speaking with my adviser, Peter Smith, we identified some departmental money which was available as hallowed "discretionary funds." But it was up to me to convince Mike to give me access.

So I worked hard and prepared. I wrote up a proposal and put together budgets for a few different options and I headed over to the corridor on the second floor of the Kuiper building. Once in Mike's office, I handed over my papers which he looked over briefly. Then he looked up at me and asked me what I hoped to discover, what we might be able to do with the equipment and where the work might take me and suggested a few scientific avenues of investigation. I was shocked. I expected to have my budgets gone over with a fine-toothed comb and here we were discussing Science for the whole of the meeting! At the end, I had a verdict - I would get access to the funds to spend how I wished to carry out my research. It was a great feeling and I was determined not to let down his faith in me. Perhaps that too was part of his plan.

Certainly, Mike made dozens of these decisions every day and almost all of them carried more weight and more significance than my proposal. Yet, for me, this project was near and dear to my heart and I think he saw that. I will remember that meeting. Oh and if you're curious - the project was a success, the results published in Icarus earlier this year. Originally, I had offered Mike a co-authorship on the paper, but he was also modest. He thanked me for the honour and pointed out that he was but a facilitator of my work. So I instead recognized his contribution in the acknowledgments section.

It's one of many many such testaments to a man who we will all miss. The department has suffered a great loss as has the Osiris-Rex Mission, which Mike had been excited to lead. Though he will not be there to see it explored in person, perhaps he will be with us in spirit as we rendezvous with 1999 RQ36 and in some way a little something of him will make that journey as well.

UPDATE: news has just arrived that LPL's second director Charles P. Sonett has also just passed away.

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