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Allan Sandage

Sadly, my academic great-grand-uncle Allan Sandage passed away last week. I never had an opportunity to meet him, which is a shame because he worked just up the road at the Carnegie Institute right here in Pasadena. I would have liked to talk with him about evolved stars as his 2003 paper on subgiants was part of the inspiration of my thesis project.

From his obituary in the NY Times:

[His advisor Edwin] Hubble had planned an observing campaign using a new 200-inch telescope on Palomar Mountain in California to explore the haunting questions raised by that mysterious expansion. If the universe was born in a Big Bang, for example, could it one day die in a Big Crunch? But Hubble died of a heart attack in 1953, just as the telescope was going into operation. So Dr. Sandage, a fresh Ph.D. at 27, inherited the job of limning the fate of the universe.

“It would be as if you were appointed to be copy editor to Dante,” Dr. Sandage said. “If you were the assistant to Dante, and then Dante died, and then you had in your possession the whole of ‘The Divine Comedy,’ what would you do?”

That's quite a burden for a postdoc! Later in the obit I figured out that I might not have had much of a chance of meeting him:

Dr. Sandage was a man of towering passions and many moods, and for years, you weren’t anybody in astronomy if he had not stopped speaking to you.

Well, I never spoke to him, so does that make me somebody? No? Darn.

I like talking with old-school astronomers. I always learn a lot and walk away from these conversations with a renewed awe of the way astronomy was done in the past. 10-hour nights perched hundreds of feet above the ground at the prime focus of a fully non-automated telescope. George Herbig once told me that you climbed into the prime focus cage with two thermoses. One full, one empty. And at the end of the night you climbed down with one full, one empty.

I hope that one day I can tell some young 33-year-old professor about astronomy back in the 2000's. We used to have to walk downstairs from our office and log in remotely to the telescope 2500 miles away. Then we'd have to use a mouse to click on targets and tell the telescope operator when to move. We used to communicate with this clunky system known as a Polycom, which gave only a tiny, 2-dimensional image of the person on the other line. The next morning, we'd type commands into our computers---which were this big by the way---and wait 2 hours for the reduced data to be stored on our hard drives. Yes, hard drives with only terabytes of space on them. It's amazing we ever got anything published back then...


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