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.

Stars on Hollywood and Vine

October 13, 2008

Spent the last few days at Caltech, selling my wares – a colloquium that covered both UKIDSS science highlights and and AstroGrid tools, another talk on why I don’t believe in donuts, and various bits of VO technicalia for my  CACR chums. The UKIDSS-VO update can be found here, but you don’t get the full flavour as you miss my live demo. People seemed impressed that someone over thirty-five could type SQL in real time into a box, so I was mildly chuffed.

Caltech is famous for being a tad competitive shall we say. I got entertained at lunch by various grad students and postdocs. They seemed relaxed, but with a pushy edge. At that stage, young scientists are desperate to get noticed, and are simultaneously confident and insecure – will the world decide you are a genius or a dullard ?

The next morning I was doing LA tourism with my family. I found myself on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine St, staring at the sidewalk-stars and trying hard to absorb the vibrations of Hollywood history. In the glory days, this was the spot where starry-eyed hopefuls would hang around, drinking coffee very very slowly, just waiting to be spotted and carried off to stardom. Its very hard to believe now. The whole area is so run down, tacky, decayed, and even boarded up. Further along Hollywood Boulevard it eventually smartens up, but even the famous Chinese Theatre with the handprints of the stars seems small and tawdry. Can this really be the source, the spring, of our twentieth century dreams ?

Hitting success in astrophysics is at least a mixture of talent and luck. Hitting the big time in the dream factory was almost all luck, because talent was oversupplied. And yet … the great movie actors – Katherine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant would be my list – seem so magical, surely their destiny was manifest ?