The Death of Jay M. Pasachoff

Williams faculty, staff and students,

I write, as promised, with a tribute to the late Jay M. Pasachoff, Field Memorial Professor and Chair of Astronomy and Director of the Hopkins Observatory, who died from lung cancer on Sunday.

In an obituary earlier this week, The New York Times paid homage to Jay’s considerable achievements, including his many contributions to both scholarly and popular astronomy. I wish to complement that memorial here by honoring Jay’s equally impressive legacy at Williams.

Jay arrived on campus in 1972 after earning his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. from Harvard and then teaching for a short time at the California Institute of Technology. He joined our faculty in an era when astronomy was still widely considered a subfield of physics. Many of his colleagues now credit him with defining it as a scientific discipline in its own right.

Jay was proud to have recently reached his 50th year of teaching at Williams, which also made him the longest-serving current member of our faculty. Over his five decades he taught, advised and mentored a stunning number of students, many of whom have gone on to eminent careers, including a number who have become leading astronomers.

One of the latter, Dan Stinebring ’75, is now Emeritus Professor of Physics at Oberlin College. Dan credits Jay with sparking his passion to study pulsars. Dan writes: “Fifty years ago, even before Jay started teaching at Williams, he visited campus to offer a remarkable opportunity to Williams physics majors: join him in an expedition that summer to Prince Edward Island to observe and study the total solar eclipse. It was a transformative experience for me and four other students, including the chance to join forces with a Harvard team led by Jay’s mentor, Donald Menzel. The next summer was even more remarkable. Four of us got to go with Jay to Africa for an eclipse, with totality lasting more than seven minutes—near the maximum time possible. I marvel at the life-changing experiences he offered to me and 50 more years’ worth of Williams students. Great science mentorship, warm companionship, opportunities to meet researchers from all over the world, and, OMG, those magical moments in the moon’s shadow!”

Decades later, Jay was still kindling that same enthusiasm in his students: Anne Jaskot ’08, now assistant professor of astronomy at Williams, recently recounted to The Berkshire Eagle her experience as an undergraduate, accompanying one of Jay’s trips to the Canary Islands. It was Anne’s first visit to a solar telescope. “I got to see science in action,” she said. “The whole experience was really memorable and striking…. One of his greatest strengths was how he always looked for opportunities to involve students in research. He was known for traveling the world to see solar eclipses [and] on all of those trips he was accompanied by a group of students.”

Hundreds of Williams alumni have similar stories of traveling with Jay to view and study eclipses and the sun’s corona from vantage points in India, Tasmania and, once, even from a research plane over Antarctica. On these voyages they often joined a varied and lively crew that also included former students, scientific colleagues, friends and acquaintances.

Such trips were both scientifically and logistically complex. Karen Kwitter, Ebenezer Fitch Professor of Astronomy, Emerita, and Steve Souza, Senior Lecturer in Astronomy, Emeritus, describe them as Jay’s labor of love. “He was a forward thinker,” they say, “meticulously planning for expeditions and all their logistics years in advance and, in fact, juggling plans for multiple expeditions at once. In addition to the scientific and public education aspects of these undertakings, he had to be part travel agent, part I.T. and A.V. coordinator, and part tour director. If access to a telescope in some remote location at a particular time was needed for an astronomical event, Jay would in short order come up with the site, the telescope and a new collaborator or two. The evidence of his success can be found in the long lists of authors and co-authors on his scientific papers.”

Such dedication delivered results. The New York Times theorized that Jay may have managed to see more solar eclipses than anyone else in human history: 75 by his count, 36 of them total eclipses.

His work drew in a wide audience, and Jay became the “go-to guy” on eclipses for many national news publications. Along the way he had his share of adventures. In the fall of 1973, for example, while still new to the Williams faculty, he earned local renown when a group of local residents called on him late at night to report their sightings of an alleged UFO, which he investigated and showed to be the result of atmospheric distortions of starlight.

This anecdote was characteristic: Jay’s popular engagements were always rooted in serious science. With Berkeley professor Alex Filippenko he co-authored one of the major survey textbooks in astronomy, The Cosmos: Astronomy in the New Millennium, now in its fifth edition, and with his wife, the historian and biographer Naomi Pasachoff, he co-authored a series of junior high school science textbooks. Jay also published important works introducing the science of astronomy to lay readers, including multiple editions of the Peterson Field Guide to the Stars and Planets; the Peterson Field Guide to Weather, co-written with Canadian meteorologist Jay Anderson and the late John A. Day, Linfield College professor; and Cosmos: The Art and Science of the Universe, a sweeping survey of the history of scientific and artistic representations of the universe, which he co-published with art historian Roberta J.M. Olson.

Those images of the universe, and the ideas they represented, were another area of passion. Over the years, Jay repeatedly co-taught a course on rare books with Wayne Hammond, now Chapin Librarian, Emeritus. Wayne says, “I was privileged to work closely with Jay as a friend and distinguished astronomer in teaching the history of his discipline, especially through a course he and I offered several times. Our work was aided by Jay’s impressive personal collection of rare books, which he kept in the Chapin Library to be used alongside the Chapin’s own holdings. He and I were thrilled that so many Williams students were attracted to astronomy by the prospect of consulting original editions of works by the likes of Copernicus, Galileo and Einstein.”

Such accomplishments earned Jay more honors than I can fit in this tribute. He was a recipient of, among others, the Education Prize of the American Astronomical Society; the Prix-Jules-Janssen of the Société Astronomique de France; the Richtmyer Memorial Lecture Award; the American Association of Physics Teachers Award; and the Klumpke-Roberts Award from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. At the time of his death he was chair of the International Astronomical Union’s Working Group on Solar Eclipses as well as a Legacy Fellow of the American Astronomical Society and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society and the Royal Astronomical Society. He also was one of 15 Honorary Members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. He and Naomi were each honored with the naming of an asteroid, Asteroid (5100) Pasachoff and Asteroid (68109) Naomipasachoff, respectively. His research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society and many other funders and foundations.

Through all of this global scientific activity, Jay was deeply devoted to Williams and teaching here, and made time to be an active campus citizen. He served as chair of the Department of Astronomy multiple times and was the longtime president of our Sigma Xi chapter. He was civically engaged off-campus, too, publishing more than 50 letters to the editor in The New York Times on topics ranging from campaign finance reform to the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 and the origins of telephone area codes.

Jay Pasachoff lived the role of the educator-scholar to the hilt. Through his tireless teaching and writing, public outreach and advocacy, he defined a whole discipline and inspired a constellation of lifelong knowledge-seekers. He brought to all his work a marvelous combination of pugnacious Bronx demeanor and gentle care for those in his orbit. His absence will be felt for a long time to come.

Jay is survived by Naomi and their daughters, Eloise and Deborah; his sister, Nancy Kutner; and five grandchildren. The family is developing plans for a memorial, and we will share details once they become available.

In the meantime, our thoughts are with Jay’s family and his many colleagues and collaborators, students, friends and admirers.