Lessons from Don
I was pondering the origin of the discoveries by Rudolf Minkowski of the numerous planetary nebulae that he had identified and published in 1946, while writing a short report on my quest to see, by eye, one of these obscure, faint objects. When the Net did not immediately yield the answer I sought, it occurred to me that I did know precisely one person in the whole world who had the answer. I looked to see if the current email address that I had was active, and in doing so I had a great shock: exactly one week earlier, to the day, he had died. And it was a rather remarkable death: a shockingly sudden, unexpected demise, as he was striding across the beautiful, sunny, rustic campus of the University of California, Santa Cruz, on his way to the McHenry library, intent on a meeting with a student and no doubt in a hurry: one of a million such encounters he had during a long, productive life, and which countless thousands of people no doubt cherish as being among the important, unique events in theirs: a talk with Don.
This man was, holding to the protocols of the time-honored traditions of academe, Donald E. Osterbrock, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Astrophysics of the University of California, and Former Director, UC/Lick Observatory. But to all and sundry, he was, simply, Don. It was no surprise to me to learn that, at 82, he was still vigorously functioning as he always had: in the midst of scientists, students, faculty, administrators, engineers, technicians, and just plain people. What IS unimaginable to me is that now he isn't. I am still coping with that, and probably will be trying to for a long time to come.
Who was "Don"? Why was he so special? I enjoy history and biographies and studying and sharing information about the lives of scientists -- but for some reason, suddenly I feel incompetent to do so, with respect to Don. You can look it all up. You can read his books: the textbooks and papers if you are a scientist; and if you are anybody at all, the histories and biographies of the people who fascinated him: and, by extension, will fascinate everyone who is curious about how our current knowledge, comprehension, or speculations about the entire universe made the transition from a primitive, almost pre-technical era, to the present. When you read anything he wrote, you will note the clarity, the simplicity, the lack of posture or self-assumed gravity. He wrote like George Orwell at his sparest. There was a touch of Hemingway in his prose style, but totally without the artifice and intellectual pretension that lurked in the background of the writings of that particular artist and Great Man of Letters. Don, true to science, was conveying not word pictures and emotion, but facts and substance and the concrete: but with his own scientific sense of eloquence.
So: if I feel like it is best to leave the public chronicle to others who might be comfortable with sifting the facts and paring them down into a succinct statement of achievement (oh, and WHAT achievement!), what perhaps I can offer will be a few remarks about things that nobody else experienced. Anybody who dealt with Don could do that about their own, and the reading of it would give his other friends the rarest enjoyment.
Here is how I came to be in a position to learn a few important lessons from Don. My wife, Regina Roper, who became a co-director (with Bill "Shiloh" Unruh, Jr.) of the "Music of the Spheres" concert series at Lick Observatory for nine of its earliest seasons, introduced me to the site manager of Lick Observatory, Ron Laub, who -- with his wife Liz -- formed the core of the small social group of residents in this tiny and closely-knit community at 4,200 feet above the basin of the Santa Clara valley. Through Ron and Liz, Regina was introduced to Don and Irene Osterbrock, who always enjoyed any reason to go from Santa Cruz up the 365 hairpin turns that lead from Alum Rock Avenue up to the "Mount Hamilton observing station", as it is called by old-timers. Don and Irene always tried to attend those concerts, and were affably social and outgoing people (though with the natural dignity and reserve of midwesterners of their particular generation.) Nevertheless, Don had his unbuttoned moods, and I'm told he was wont occasionally to dress up in a wizard's costume to conduct introductory astronomy classes!
My wife -- like Don -- is an extrovert: a concert musician and teacher who is definitely a "people person". She; the very jolly and voluble Shiloh; my wife's good friend and musical collaborator Wally Downs; guitarist Dan Roest: and many others associated with the concerts were always impressed that such a luminary as Don would derive genuine pleasure from their performances and their company. Somehow, somewhere lost in my memory, I "hooked up" with Don, possibly because I had tossed off a few remarks that betrayed my interest in amateur astronomy as a participant, and in the science of astronomy as a student of life. Don enjoyed talking with such people, much as I imagine that Professor Einstein would have done: gracefully, on their level, with charm and simplicity. Shiloh and I had known each other, if only slightly, dating back many years; we became much better friends during Regina's concert programs (which I've written about in my Horsehead chronicles.) And Shiloh had been utilized by the two UC scientists, Don and Dr. John Gustafson of Berkeley, to supply much of the leg-work necessary to track down materials, biographical information, and photographs of the historic figures in the earliest days of the Observatory; he was in fact granted co-author status for this contribution to the book Eye on the sky: Lick Observatory's first century, which was published a few years after I first came to know Don. I devoured it with more relish than anything else I can remember, prepared to savor its episodes by the delightful experiences and anecdotes that Shiloh related to Lick visitors and many astronomy club meetings that he'd addressed over the years. When then-editor Richard Berry, of ASTRONOMY Magazine, offered me an opportunity to produce a proposed article about the hundredth-anniversary of the Horsehead Nebula's discovery, everybody I talked to about it said, to a man and woman: ask Don. And, so I did.
Dr. Donald Osterbrock at Regina's Last "Music of the Spheres" concert, 1988
The audience in the dome of the Great Refractor at Lick Observatory on
Mt. Hamilton awaits the start of the evening concert and viewing, preceded by a short
lecture by Steve Waldee on the historic contribution of the Alvan Clark refractor to
cosmological discoveries at the end of the 19th century. Regina (pianist) and Daniel
Roest (guitarist) chat at front left; in center, J. Wallace Downs (arm raised) speaks with
Don and Irene Osterbrock.
In 1989 I took a sabbatical year, right after I had left the last of my broadcasting jobs (having retired two weeks before the famous "San Andreas fault earthquake" and one year after Lick Observatory's hundredth anniversary.) I decided to inflate the task of writing a short article for ASTRONOMY into a challenging and thorough research project, something I'd always wanted to do in a field I had no academic or professional preparation for, but which I had hoped that I'd become equipped to do, by my zeal and life-long personal passion, at least on an amateur level. Just as Don had been sympathetic to Shiloh's interest in the history and personalities at Lick, he was helpful, friendly, open, and gracious to me; and we met and talked, or spoke by phone, or corresponded often in the next year. His office door was always ajar; if he wasn't there, he was found somewhere else close-by, fully engaged, always beaming with enthusiasm and energy. Man, how that guy could smile! It was a radiant, effortless, open kind of heartiness, almost what you'd feel was Whitmanesque. He wasn't a shy man. (And, his students smiled and laughed with him: especially when he showed up wearing that famous "Merlin" sorceror's outfit!)
Don didn't use a word processor; he wrote letters in his clear, firm hand: not just brief notes, dashed off curtly as if he was stealing time away from something more important, but real DOCUMENTS in which he expressed what he knew, at length. During the time I was working on the Horsehead research, he'd direct me to this paper, and that -- and to his former colleagues, such as Dr. Herbig in Hawaii; even to Dr. Allan Sandage, who (prepared no doubt by a vetting from Don) deigned to be interviewed by me. Don acted like he got a little bit wound up in my study about the Horsehead, enabling me to delve into the Mary Lea Shane archives at the campus and at the Observatory itself; and also to look into the old frail turn of the century glass negatives at the plate vault on Mt. Hamilton, a regal room that had ornate woodwork, resembling what you'd imagine a private office in J. Pierpont Morgan's estate must have looked like. There -- once again, prepared by Don -- the crusty and wary Eugene Harland, one of the principal photographers at Lick and possibly, then, the closest man to the generation and traditions of Edward Barnard, helped me and my co-researchers Rich Page, Ron, and Ryan Wood to examine the plates and documents we sought: as if we were schoolboys under the eagle eye of a strict headmaster. When I'd find out something interesting, I'd tell Don: and his omnipresent smile would turn into a radiant beacon of delight.
During this period of my research, Don went from UC/Santa Cruz to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey, on a fellowship or something-or-other, while HE worked on his historic research about the life of George W. Ritchey, the great astrophotographic pioneer. I was trying to immerse myself in the old ApJ papers of Barnard, Edwin Hubble, and Milton Humason and occasionally having a tough go of it (not having a degree in astrophysics nor being much of a mathematician.) I remember coming on a Big Question that I wanted to resolve: the distance to the great Orion nebula and the region of IC-434, the meandering red hydrogen nebula 'near' Messier 42 that enables us to see the superimposed dark cloud, the Horsehead. I checked the all the references and was, of course, confounded by their lack of unanimity -- and by the constantly changing distance values before, and after, Trumpler's measurements. What was the best answer, to give succinctly, reflecting modern cosmological thinking? I sent a note to Don, and he replied in writing, "Call me and let's talk it over"; and gave the phone number at his Princeton office. One early afternoon I worked up my nerve to do it, hoping that I'd done it at a moment when my intrusion was causing the least possible interruption. No, none of that! He answered the phone on the first ring, affably and firmly as usual; and, as we talked, my jaw dropped: for he casually mentioned that where I'd reached him, now his office for a year, had been Professor Einstein's office! Imagine that! I was chatting about cosmology, distance modulus, "standard candles", the Hubble constant, the Orion arm, and the like, with The Man Who Was Worthy To Work In Einstein's Office. That was perhaps the strangest moment of my entire life, and one that did not so much make me feel unworthy, as simply amazed. What kind of event can a simple amateur astronomer have that can equal it? (Well: talking to Sandage comes.... err, close!)
One of those letters that Don and I wrote back and forth to each other -- mine on a word processor, his each on several carefully folded sheets of elegant, heavy paper, written with a broad tipped fountain pen in strong, confident strokes -- dealt with something that I just felt I had to pin down: he gave a datum in an earlier epistle that just did not jibe, to my bewilderment, with what I was finding from scientific papers (I can't quite recall the precise issue, but it was a value of some parameter, no doubt: the sort of thing that is constantly in flux in science, and which will change over time.) I simply had to face facts: Don's "value" was apparently in error, and couldn't be corroborated. I timidly inquired, and asked for a confirmation, making an excuse that I "didn't really want to make a fine point of it, but..." Don wrote back, immediately. From the tone of the letter I could hear his casual but very direct midwestern delivery, and almost SEE the broad smile on his face as he gave his answer. Of course, that was a mistake! We make mistakes all the time; it doesn't matter as long as we correct them or have somebody else help us to do it. That was my Biggest Lesson from Don.
"Be sure to keep sending me all your research," he kept urging. When I did, and it had accumulated into a gargantuan pile of material, he once surveyed it and offered a bit of advice, leavened with a smile: "Steve, you're going to have to do a LOT of editing on that to get it published!" I confess that when I finally posted it in website form as the Horsehead Project website, the editing was probably not nearly as ruthless as he would have preferred.
Dr. Osterbrock's signed copy of his paper on Holden, presented to Steve Waldee
Some years later, a good friend of mine who is a local San Jose amateur astrophotographer, brought me a print he'd done of the northern star clouds in the constellation of Cygnus. The picture had a small, anomalous, smeared, bright patch that he could not find on the deep exposure in the Vehrenburg atlas, nor on any other picture he'd encountered. What could it be? I examined it, and the negative; and turned them over to my friend Rich Page to do so with a magnifier. We even used a small microscope, and determined that the spot was NOT a defect of the color print; it was on the negative and did not look like dust, a hair, or a bubble in the dye. It really LOOKED like a bright gas discharge that shouldn't be there! Rich had taken a wide-angle deep exposure with a camera lens, piggybacked on his huge equatorial scope, some years earlier: we examined that slide carefully. The "spot" was right at the edge, but the scale was small with many more stars crowded in a tighter area. We weren't at all sure about it but thought it might be related to one specific star that was just barely visible. Was it a flaring of the star? An unknown variable? My friend, who'd taken the picture, had fixed on the idea that it might be a rare optical indicator of a gamma-ray burster (probably the most radical and unlikely notion of all the ones we thought up to explain it.) We even got a wide scale print of the region, done in a deeper exposure by my friend Jack B. Marling, and confirmed that whatever it was, the 'star' or nebula had NOT shown that outburst in the past.
Don happened to be giving a talk at the Santa Cruz amateur astronomy club, and I made certain to attend and hear it, following him and passing out copies of a celestial map I'd made up, plotting this alleged "gas cloud" anomaly in case any astrophotographers could help us obtain some confirming pictures. Don, helpful and sympathetic as usual, immediately suggested that I check the Palomar Sky Survey pictures (not yet online) and quickly put me in touch with the guy at Lick who was in charge of their precious set of transparencies. I remember that to see them I had to be accompanied into a special room, almost as though I was entering a guarded bank vault. I had taken the trouble to precess the coordinates back to 1950, taking GREAT schoolboy effort to do it by hand for the first time in my life, not quite knowing how one did such an examination of this very hallowed old reference. The professor, whose name I have forgotten, was so impressed that I had done this calculation that his slightly officious manner and expression visibly relaxed. I had passed a sort of test, I guess; but it was for naught, he said with a chuckle: as they used large transparent overlays that could correct the positions instantly without tedious math! But, it turned out that the old plates had such heavy 'halation' marks around the blinding bright stars in the Cygnus region, that the exact spot was drowned in reflections.
Somewhat disconsolately, I trudged back to Don's office. He hadn't looked at our little photo and did not seem particularly inclined to do it; apparently he felt it was a task that I should do, to learn a thing or two. I handed it over and he barely glanced at it. "How far is this spot from Deneb?" he said, for a moment his benevolent smile disappearing. "Why, about six degrees away, I think." Don smiled again, with satisfaction. "Lens artifact! I don't have to look any further than this... you should know your camera, man!" (I didn't argue that I hadn't taken the picture; it wasn't MY camera; I was only an intermediary. He felt I needed to learn a lesson, so I did: Big Lesson No. 2 from Don.)
The amusing thing about this event was that, before going home, I dropped into another office in the science building: where a certain cutting-age cosmologist worked, nearly two generations younger than Don. I happened to mention the picture, and he eagerly requested to see it. His eyes lit up. "Would you like for me to check this out with the 200 inch at Palomar?" he inquired, eyes wide with anticipation. I was shocked. "Err... I'll do a bit more confirmation and get back to you" I could only mutter. No sense in wasting time with that magnificent instrument. That showed me the difference between an astro-PHYSICIST, and a COSMOLOGIST! Don was an old photographer himself, who had cut his eye-teeth on a clanky old 20 inch Cassegrain at Yerkes, taking plate after plate until he had mastered the art. HE knew all about off-axis reflections! A cosmologist, on the other hand, thought about somewhat more rarified subjects than telescopes. Big Lesson No. 3 from Don: think about the obvious first of all, before your head gets lost in the stars.
(Not to keep you in suspense: yes, my amateur photographer friend finally decided that it was merely a light reflection, what is commonly called a "Kodak Nebula".)
I could not then, nor can now, ever repay Don for the kindness and help he extended to me during my study of the history of the Horsehead nebula; the development of astrophotography in America and Europe; and in trying to cope with the arcane contents of a subject I had never studied as an undergraduate. Unlike certain other prominent persons I've dealt with in my career (such as 'pianist X' and 'conductor Y'), Don was a generous man, who recognized that his calling was to be, above all, an educator, informing first himself, then all else who would listen. There was no quid pro quo; if Don extended a helping hand, he WANTED to, and you needn't feel 'honored' or 'graced' by the phenomenon of his attention. You weren't asked to drive him somewhere that he wanted to go; or to do a tiresome, mundane task he wanted to avoid. Don wanted YOU to learn, and knew very well how to help you do it. All the better if the subject was actually one that interested him, too. I had the pleasure of incorporating a bit of original research that he did for me, studying the papers of George Ritchey, as to who might have given the Horsehead nebula its nickname. (Can you imagine a great scientist being amused to know the answer to such a mundane question?) We never quite figured it out, but he had some very good hunches based on private letters he read: you may find out about it if you read the section "WHO Named the Horsehead?" near the end of this article I've posted.
Dr. Osterbrock's signed copy of his paper on Leuschner, presented to Steve Waldee
Indeed, the entirety of the research presented in my Horsehead Project website is imbued with the spirit of inquiry that was the hallmark of Don's life. Without his guidance and suggestions, this information would have been merely a dry recitation of third and fourth level sources, not containing the obscure first source information that he helped me prise out of the mighty Lick collection. He knew it all; wrote about much of it, and encouraged people like Dr. Bill Sheehan, an amateur astronomer who has written the definitive biography of E. E. Barnard, and me, to breach the gaps that he hadn't the time to fill. Biggest Lesson of them all from Don: be a generous man. He was generous, to the very last instant.
Finally: I remember that one of the last times I talked to Don, he had just published one of his many celebrated books. I'd read it, immediately acquiring a copy as soon as it was released. He looked at me eagerly, like a student, with anticipation. "Did you like it? What did you think about it? Did you ENJOY it?" The last lesson from Don: we all need to be appreciated, and giving your honest opinion to someone who really wants it can be a precious gift.
Monday 29 January 2007: Copyright (c) 2007-11, Stephen R. Waldee - All Rights Reserved
Response to the above article, from part of an email to the author:
So, Dear Mr. Waldee,
I am Don Osterbrock's younger daughter, and I wanted to thank you for writing the very touching and beautiful piece on the Astronomical Jottings site called Lessons from Don. I came across it while I was looking for something else, and of course had to read it. It is just a lovely piece of writing and I am very grateful to have had the chance to read it.
My father s death was a huge shock... I regret that I hadn't had a chance to see him in the four months before he died... So I was delighted to see him spring to life in your richly detailed and affectionately written account. You caught so many facets of his character so accurately, and I smiled in recognition many times while reading your account of your friendship with him. Thanks very much for committing your thoughts to the public eye. I truly appreciate it.
I wish you the best in all your endeavors, both astronomical and otherwise.
Sincerely, and with many thanks,
Laura Osterbrock (Jan. 2008)