Friday, June 14, 2013

Remembering Professor Sharpless

I'm a big fan of the "Astronomy Picture of the Day" site (and the forum where each photo's discussed - accessible via the "discuss" link beneath each picture). Today's picture contained the latest references to astronomy legend Stewart Sharpless (who created the renowned Sharpless Catalog of emission nebulae), and this time I finally got around to writing a remembrance...because I actually knew Professor Sharpless.

I posted it here, but I'll reprint it below.
I attended U of Rochester in the early 1980's, and while I had a life-long interest in astronomy, I was dismayed to discover that serious astrophysics courses required hardcore math skills I lacked. So I studied other topics, including, in my senior year, "The Physics of Music", taught by Professor Sharpless, who had a lifelong love of music and considered this seminar (which was very hands-on with equipment like acoustic spectrum analyzers) his labor of love. He was an incredibly kind-hearted, down-to-earth, personable fellow, and if there was an Internet back then, I'd have have quickly looked him up and found out who he actually was. But this was Rochester, not, like, Yale, so one didn't expect one's professors to be celebs.

So I never found out, but really enjoyed my time with him. There was something personal and heartfelt about that class that was far from the norm. I couldn't attribute it to anything, being just a kid at the time, but I now understand it was the palpable patina of the oh-so-rare combination of stature and earnestness. Eminence without arrogance, pomposity, condescension or cynicism. Prof Sharpless obviously retained his child-like earnest eagerness about science, and he treated everyone like a colleague. He was a low-gravitas individual (LGI?).

I went on to degrees in things like philosophy, music, and politics, but never lost interest in astronomy, though I still lack math skills to this day. I'm a faithful APOD viewer, where every reference to Prof. Sharpless and his famous catalog gives me a sad smile. It was great to be in his class, but, oh, man, how I wish I'd milked more astronomy stories from him, lobbied for an invitation to the observatory, etc (he mentioned something about taking the class there some Saturday, but it never came together). I just didn't realize who he was - though, on a deeper level, "who he was" did quietly inspire me.


MicroAstro said...

Nice post. I'm an astrophotographer and do cards and prints of my work. I was looking for a personal anecdote about Steward Sharpless for an image of Sh2-155 The Cave, and your comment about his love of music and the "Physics of Music" course was perfect for presenting him as a whole person rather than just a body of research. Thanks for posting.

Jim Leff said...

Thanks, Keith. Hey, can you give me a heads up when the image appears? I'd love to see it.

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