Goodbye Wal

October 31, 2012

Sad news for astronomy – Wal Sargent has died.Wal is famous for his work on quasar absorption lines, but was also a pillar of Caltech, producing a stream of stellar grad students such as John  Huchra, Chuck Steidel, and Alex Filippenko. He was a much loved character as well as a world leading scientist. He is survived by his wife Anneila, who is of course an equally famous astronomer. Anneila is from Fife and we were very proud to give her an honorary degree a few years back.

The Caltech announcement is here. Sean Carroll has already written some words at Cosmic Variance, and there are a lot of comments on the Facebook Astronomers group page.

I only met Wal a few times, but I felt as if I knew him before I even met him, as I used to listen to Mike Penston telling Wal stories at lunchtime in the old RGO at Herstmonceux castle. Apparently, some time in the sixties, possibly the same year that Mike and Margaret broke one of the beds at Palomar, Wal and Mike wrote a Pantomime called “The Plate Flaw That Destroyed The Earth”.  Some astronomers notice an annoying flaw on a plate they take at Palomar. Strangely, on another plate the next week the same flaw is there but it has moved. Our heroes calculate the orbit of the plate flaw and conclude that it will hit the Earth on Christmas Day.Very Milligan. Can’t remember what happens next. Perhaps some old timer can enlighten us?

I have heard Wal quoted repeatedly during STFC and PPARC crises. Being an ex-Brit, Wal was often bemused by the strange recurring political lurchings and restucturings of British science and especially astronomy. It is claimed – I don’t know if its really true – that he once said that every few year years the Government pulls the astronomical plant out of the ground, examines the dangling roots to see if its growing, then pushes it back in.