Jay Pasachoff, who chased eclipses around the world, dies at 79

Jay M. Pasachoff, a Williams College astronomer who has spent more than 50 years traveling the world to observe solar eclipses and, with 74 sightings to his credit, has probably witnessed more of them than any other human in history , died Sunday at his home in Williamstown, Mass. He was 79 years old.

The cause was lung cancer, said his wife, Naomi Pasachoff.

For Dr. Pasachoff, the sublime grandeur of a total eclipse was so overwhelming that it defied easy description, and its allure needed no explanation: if you didn’t understand it, he said, you wouldn’t you obviously haven’t seen it. Thousands of people knew what he meant. Hordes of them travel thousands of miles to spend a few minutes in what amounts to an artificial night in the middle of the day.

“We are umbraphiles,” he wrote in The New York Times in 2010. “After standing in the shadow, the shadow of the moon, during a solar eclipse, we are driven to it. do it again and again, each time the moon moves between the Earth and the sun.

But he was more than an eclipse fan. He studied the corona, the outermost layer of the sun’s atmosphere, which, being one millionth as bright as the sun itself, is best studied when the rest of the sun is obscured by the moon – in other terms, during an eclipse.

The corona may pale in sunlight, but it’s a million degrees hotter, a mystery that fascinated Dr. Pasachoff. He liked to say that the mystery had actually been solved, but he had 17 possible solutions, and one of the purposes of his job was to test these theories.

Dr Pasachoff preferred to be called an “eclipse precedent” instead of an “eclipse chaser”, with good reason. He would spend up to three years before an eclipse preparing equipment, lining up grants, arranging travel, and planning for any of the myriad contingencies that could interfere with the few minutes he and his team would have to watch the moon pass in front of the sun.

To begin with, it was not enough to know the trajectory of an eclipse on the surface of the Earth. Dr. Pasachoff studied weather almanacs to find the site least likely to be obscured by a freak storm or morning mist. Sometimes that meant trekking through the deserts of northern Kenya or flying 41,000 feet above Antarctica, as he did on December 4, 2021, in what turned out to be the one of his last expeditions.

Although Williams College does not have a graduate program in astronomy, Dr. Pasachoff worked so closely with his undergraduate students that over time he built an extensive network of contacts around the world. , making him one of the best-connected scientists in the world.

“He knew people everywhere,” said Michael J. Person, director of the Wallace Astrophysical Observatory at MIT, in an interview. “I knew I could call Jay Pasachoff and say, ‘I need a telescope in New Guinea,’ and he would know someone there.”

It might seem, to the untrained eye, that one eclipse is more or less the same as another. But Dr. Pasachoff knew otherwise. For him, the sun was less a stable object than a river, in its perpetual transmutation, and he said he had never seen the same eclipse twice.

“Everyone is different,” he said in a 2021 interview for this obituary. “The sun is different. His eruptions are different. The structures on its surface are different.

Jay Myron Pasachoff was born on July 1, 1943 in Manhattan. His father, Samuel, was a surgeon who left shortly after Jay’s birth to serve in the Army Medical Corps; during the Second World War, he landed in Normandy and took part in the Battle of the Bulge. His mother, Anne (Traub) Pasachoff, was a teacher.

After his father returned from the war, the family moved from Manhattan to the Bronx, where Jay attended Bronx High School of Science. His interest in astronomy began early, with visits to the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History; by the time he was in high school, he was building telescopes with the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York.

He entered Harvard University at age 16. For his freshman seminar, he chose an astronomy course with Donald H. Menzel, an expert on solar eclipses. Luckily, just weeks into the semester, a total solar eclipse was set to begin off the coast of Massachusetts near Marblehead. Dr. Menzel borrowed a DC-3 plane from Northeast Airlines and took his class, along with the chief executive of Polaroid, to watch.

It was Mr. Pasachoff’s first total eclipse, and he was hooked. He intended to major in math, but ended up in astronomy instead. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in 1963, his master’s degree in 1965 and his doctorate. in 1969, all from Harvard.

After a few years as a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology, he arrived at Williams College in 1972 as the sole member of its astronomy department and director of its observatory, the oldest of its kind in the United States.

He married Naomi Schwartz in 1974. He is survived by his daughters, Eloise and Deborah; his sister, Nancy Kutner; and five grandchildren.

Although his contributions to astronomy were many, Dr. Pasachoff was equally, if not better, known as, in his own words, a proselyte: speaking to the media, writing for general-interest scientific publications, and encouraging amateurs to share his passion for the night sky. .

His expeditions often included not only other scientists, but also undergraduates, graduate students from other schools, and a coterie of friends and family, all eager to learn from Dr. Pasachoff.

“He had this rare quality of wanting to see all of his students get where they wanted to be, and then he did everything he could to help them get there,” said Amy Steele, a graduate student in astronomy at the McGill University who studied with Dr. Pasachoff at Williams and made three expeditions with him.

He has written several high school and college textbooks, an updated edition of Peterson’s “Field Guide to the Stars and Planets” (1999), and, with art historian Roberta JM Olson, “Cosmos: The ‘art and science of the universe’ (2019 ).

Dr. Pasachoff loved astronomy, and astronomy loved him back: he and his wife are immortalized in the names of a pair of asteroids, 5100 Pasachoff and 68109 Naomipasachoff.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: