Lyman Spitzer: A Space Visionary

Uploaded by SpitzerScienceCenter on 18.02.2009

Lyman Spitzer was an inspiration not just as a scientist, but in addition to that he was really a remarkable human being.
He was a visionary. He was a scientific leader. He was the one that in the '40s - 1940s - before anybody could ever imagine putting a telescope in space, he immediately started thinking and said, "Well there are rockets. We can go above the Earth's atmosphere. Why don't we build some mission - put a telescope up above the Earth's atmosphere?"
So he wrote this paper for the Rand Corporation. It was an unusual proposition that he was making: to get away from the atmosphere, which makes the stars twinkle, which is very pretty and romantic and all that, if you could get above that and get a telescope up there, you could learn a good deal.
People thought he was crazy; it just sounded like science ficition.
He did some early work on balloon measurements to show how great was the improvement if you got to greater heights. And as a result of that Lyman became the focal point for putting telescopes in space. Anybody that studies astronomy and astrophysics has to think of Lyman as a great pioneer but also one who laid the foundations - solid foundations - for future work. He made epochal contributions in plasma physics and stellar dynamics and space phyisics and the interstellar medium and how stars form.
I think it's fair to say that if any one person created the field of thought of insterstellar astrophysics, it was Lyman Spitzer. He was certainly among the very first people to be applying laws of physics to thinking about insterstellar dust and recognizing it as something which was not just the annoying obscuration which bothers optical astronomers who'd be quite happy if there simply were no interstellar dust, but rather he recognized that it was something which was a crucial constituent of the interstellar medium.
The last of the Great Observatories is up and running now. It fits what Lyman Spitzer's vision was perfectly well. And that's why I'm so sorry he's not here to see his dream come true.
His outlet was rock climbing.
He was a very good climber. Took probably a few more risks than I would have been willing to take. When he was chair of the department and was quite senior at the university, he decided it would be nice to climb the tower of the graduate college. He thought, well, the worst thing they could do is take away his chairmanship of the department which he thought was perfectly OK. So he completed the climb, was reprimanded, and I guess went home.
The students just adored him.
He this aura and presence. When he walked in a room, you knew you were in the presence of a great man. But he did not want to take any of the credit away from the young people that were working with him.
His office was in the house at the foot of the stairs. The kids would want to come in and he would drop whatever he was doing and it was always, always time for his family. He loved his family. He was a pocket of clarity.
Bright, innovative, very gentleman-like.
He was a sufficiently powerful personality with enough good ideas that most of those ideas have lasted until now.
Spitzer's legacy I would say is the achievement we have obtained with the Great Observatories - is just unparalleled. What Lyman Spitzer has achieved with his dream is comparable to what Galileo has achieved in revolutionizing our understanding of our universe.