Monday, March 7, 2011

Deceased--James Ludlow Elliot

James Ludlow Elliot
June 19th, 1943 to March 3rd, 2011

"James Elliot, 67; eminent astronomer helped students discover their potential"


Emma Stickgold

March 7th, 2011

The Boston Globe

Back when Pluto was a planet, and Saturn was considered unique for its rings, James Ludlow Elliot could be found peering through powerful telescopes and collecting data that helped make him one of the greats among modern observational planetary astronomers.

Aboard an airborne observatory in 1977, Dr. Elliot was part of the team that discovered that Uranus has rings. In 1988, he flew to a remote section of the Pacific Ocean to observe a celestial phenomenon known as occultation and discovered evidence that Pluto has an atmosphere.

And as director of MIT’s Wallace Astrophysical Observatory, he was an inspiration to many students, encouraging women in particular to pursue a field long dominated by men.

Dr. Elliot, a professor of planetary astronomy and physics at MIT, died Thursday at his home in Wellesley of complications of cancer. He was 67.

Dr. Elliot kept a white index card in his pocket and carried his favorite blue mechanical pencil with him so he could mark down notes to help keep his research on track.

“He was an observant person — very observant, very interested in the world around him, interested in how things works,’’ said his daughter Lyn of State College, Pa. “He was a very curious person, always interested in seeing things from many different sides, someone who was good at seeing multiple perspectives of a situation.’’

One of the top experts in his field, he was adept at explaining complex and often technical subjects in terms his audience could understand, said his daughter, who recalled many hours the two spent poring over her physics homework in high school.

“He was very generous with his time,’’ she said.

Longtime colleague Amanda Bosh said she left a note on the door of his MIT office when she was a student, asking to meet with him so she could discuss her interest in his field.

She received a quick response.

“He had a real special ability of recognizing and nurturing enthusiasm,’’ she said.

She took one of his signature courses on observational astronomy and later worked with him on several projects.

Dr. Elliot had a knack for helping students understand how to analyze their data, she said.

“I was in awe of all the things he could do,’’ she said.

Bosh recalled him speaking about the privilege it was to be an astronomer and the responsibility it carried.

Astronomy had no direct impact on people’s lives, he said, yet “we get grant money to pay for it — taxpayers help us to pay for it — so we had a real responsibility to learn new things and pass that on as well,’’ she said.

Heidi Hammel said she was the only undergraduate student in the first course Dr. Elliot taught at MIT, observational astronomy. She had signed up for it as an elective.

She considered dropping the course, but he encouraged her to stay, and she went on to become a renowned astronomer.

“He made you part of his team, working shoulder-to-shoulder, and he invested in us this trust,’’ she said.

At a time when not many women were enrolled at MIT, she said, “Jim would always say, ‘You can do this,’ ’’ Hammel said. “I didn’t get that from a lot of my other professors, I’ll tell you.’’

Dr. Elliot was born in Columbus, Ohio, and earned a bachelor’s in 1965 from MIT. He earned a doctorate in astronomy from Harvard University in 1972 and joined Cornell’s faculty in 1977. While at Harvard, Dr. Elliot met his wife, Elaine, a Tufts graduate student who was working at a Harvard office, his daughter said.

In 1977, aboard the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, he and his team used telescopic equipment to observe Uranus as it crossed in front of a star. They watched the pattern of the planet passing across the star, dimming its brightness, and observed symmetric dips that were the result of rings encompassing the planet.

Dr. Elliot was awarded a NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement, according to an obituary posted on the MIT website.

He returned to MIT in 1978, and became director of the Wallace Astrophysical Observatory.

With the Uranus discovery behind him, he looked for another challenge.

“We wanted to do something hard and the only thing left was Pluto,’’ he told the Globe in 1988.

Uncommon celestial events were among his specialties, in particular occultation, which occurs when one object is hidden by another that travels between it and the observer, allowing for measurements and analysis that are hard to otherwise come by.

In 1988, Pluto was expected to pass in front of a faint star, causing a shadow to sweep across Earth at a rate of more than 11 miles a second, and those were the conditions Dr. Elliot needed to learn more about this celestial body, whose exact size was still a matter of speculation.

Fourteen years later, Dr. Elliot and his team packed up cameras, telescopes, and computerized equipment and boarded the NASA jet Kuiper Airborne Observatory to travel to an area of the Pacific roughly 3,000 miles south of Hawaii to catch Pluto’s shadow in optimal viewing conditions.

Using eight telescopes, Dr. Elliot and his team observed the dimming of the star when Pluto passed in front of it on Aug. 20, 2002, and discovered that Pluto’s atmosphere was expanding. This seemed surprising to the team because they had thought it would shrink as it traveled farther from the sun.

When the starlight dimmed, and then about a minute later become visible once more, sounds of joy emanated from team members, according to a Globe article from the time.

“What this means is that Pluto has an atmosphere,’’ he told the Globe.

Bosh was on that flight and said Dr. Elliot took on the role of “the big-picture guy,’’ who led the team with an eye for detail and organization.

“For the longest time, it was considered impossible to have the precision you needed to predict those events,’’ Bosh said.

Pluto was considered the solar system’s ninth planet until 2006, when an international committee of astronomers decided that it was too small to be considered a planet.

Last year, an event to honor him, dubbed a “Jimboree,’’ was held at MIT and many students returned to share their memories of their experiences with a professor who had championed their careers.

Some students paid homage to his love of white index cards, writing notes of remembrances on them.

“So many students of his came back,’’ Bosh said. “He was so surprised by that, but I absolutely was not.’’

In addition to his daughter Lyn and his wife, Dr. Elliot leaves another daughter, Martha of Brooklyn, N.Y.; two sisters, Suzanne of New London, Conn., and Martha Bureau of Piedmont, Calif.; a brother, Tom, of Arlington, Va.; and a granddaughter.

"James Elliot Is Dead at 67; Discovered Rings of Uranus"


Jascha Hoffman

March 10th, 2011

The New York Times

James Elliot, an astronomer who used light from distant stars to study planetary objects throughout the solar system, leading to his discovery of the rings of Uranus, died on March 3 at his home in Wellesley, Mass. He was 67.

His daughter Lyn said the cause was complications of cancer treatment.

Dr. Elliot spent his career, mostly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, scrutinizing planets by observing how much starlight they blocked. Using phenomena known as stellar occultations, he could observe changes in the brightness of a star when it was hidden by a planet, thus determining the planet’s size and the temperature and pressure of any atmosphere it had.

Occultations are rare, and to observe them one must predict when the planet will pass in front of a star, and where on the Earth its shadow will be cast. A high degree of coordination is necessary to ensure that multiple telescopes around the world are trained on a star at the precise moments that it is obscured by a planet.

In 1977, using a telescope in an airplane, Dr. Elliot led a team of Cornell University scientists to observe the planet Uranus when it passed between Earth and a star. Flying at night over a patch of the Indian Ocean where Uranus’s shadow was to be cast, he had the foresight to turn on his equipment more than a half-hour early. This allowed him to record a series of slight dimmings that provided the first evidence of Uranus’s rings.

“This is science deeply rooted in preparation and planning, with only minutes of execution,” said Michael Person, an astronomer at M.I.T. who worked with Dr. Elliot. “You have to be there, prepared and ready, observing at the right time, or you don’t get it.”

The Uranus researchers — Dr. Elliot, Edward Dunham and Douglas Mink — were aboard the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration jet that flew above the clouds to gather unobstructed images of the stellar eclipse through a mounted three-foot telescope.

“He spent the whole flight pacing in a circle, so his headset wire would get twisted up, and he had to unplug and uncurl it,” said Dr. Dunham, who is now at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. “We worked until the sun came up, and the pilot was running out of gas, and we had to go home.”

Using the same method when Pluto passed in front of a distant star in 1988, Dr. Elliot and his team noticed that, rather than abruptly flashing off and on again, the starlight disappeared and reappeared gradually, providing definitive evidence that Pluto had an atmosphere.

In 2002 he was part of a group that used ground-based telescopes to discover that Pluto’s atmosphere had warmed and expanded, not long before the International Astronomical Union decided that it was not a full-fledged planet.

In recent years, working with a team led by Jay Pasachoff at Williams College and others, Dr. Elliot and his collaborators at M.I.T. turned their attention to the ring of small bodies beyond Neptune known as the Kuiper Belt. Within the past year the group determined the size of a small planetary body that is among the brightest objects in the solar system. They plan to observe Pluto and its moons as they pass in front of two stars in June.

“In the current culture of giant spacecraft missions and multibillion-dollar experiments,” Dr. Person said, “he showed that someone dedicated to science with relatively small resources could still make very exciting discoveries.”

James Ludlow Elliot was born in Columbus, Ohio, on June 19, 1943, the eldest son of a dentist. He studied physics as an undergraduate at M.I.T. and received his Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard in 1972. His early work with stellar occultations used ground-based telescopes to study Mars, Jupiter and the moons of Saturn as they passed in front of distant stars. After a brief stint at Cornell, during which he discovered Uranus’s rings, Dr. Elliot returned to M.I.T. in 1978, where he became director of the Wallace Astrophysical Observatory, and stayed on for the rest of his career. In later years he led a winter astronomy field camp at Lowell Observatory, where he trained his students for Grand Canyon hikes by loading their backpacks with books.

Dr. Elliot was a mentor to many students, particularly women. “He had an amazing ability to take students who were just kids, and make them feel they were part of the team,” said Heidi Hammel, executive vice president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, known as AURA, a consortium of universities and astronomy-related institutions. “He trusted us, he taught us, and sent us out into the world to be scientists.”

In addition to his daughter Lyn, Dr. Elliot is survived by his wife, Elaine; his daughter Martha of Brooklyn; his sisters Suzanne of New London, Conn., and Martha Bureau of Piedmont, Calif.; his brother, Tom, of Arlington, Va.; and a granddaughter.

Dr. Elliot’s penchant for preparation was apparent at home. A few years ago he drew up a list called “Jobs for Grandchildren.” When reminded that he did not yet have any grandchildren, he replied, “They aren’t things I need to have done soon.”

"James Elliot dies at 67; MIT astronomer discovered rings of Uranus and atmosphere of Pluto"

Elliot relied on an indirect technique called stellar occultation, in which astronomers watch a planet or other astronomical object very carefully as it passes in front of a star


Thomas H. Maugh II

March 20th, 2011

Los Angeles Times

James Elliot, the MIT astronomer who discovered the rings of Uranus and the faint atmosphere of Pluto, died March 3 at his home in Wellesley, Mass. He was 67 and had been suffering from cancer.

The rings of Uranus are narrow and faint and not observable from Earth. Pluto not only is small, but it is on the outer fringes of the solar system, making it equally difficult to view its atmosphere directly.

Elliot relied on an indirect technique called stellar occultation, in which astronomers watch a planet or other astronomical object very carefully as it passes in front of a star. But the technique requires immaculate planning, precise timing and careful observation.

There are no second chances.

In 1977, Elliot, Edward Dunham and Douglas Mink — all three then at Cornell University — flew over the Indian Ocean in the Kuiper Airborne Observatory to use its 36-inch telescope to observe an occultation of a bright star by Uranus. Elliot had the foresight to turn the instrument on about an hour in advance.

To the team's surprise, the light from the star winked out briefly several times before it was eclipsed by Uranus, then again several times after the eclipse. Those symmetrical drops in the star's brightness were a clear indication that Uranus possessed rings, something that astronomers had not suspected.

The rings were subsequently viewed directly by the Voyager 2 spacecraft.

In 1988, Elliot and his colleagues observed Pluto — which was then considered a planet but which has since been demoted to the status of dwarf planet — by the same technique. They observed that instead of winking out sharply, as had been expected, the light from the star faded gradually, then reappeared gradually once Pluto had fully passed in front of the star.

That was a sign that the celestial body had an atmosphere, albeit a thin one. Elliot's team plans to do similar occultation observations in June.

James Ludlow Elliot was born June 17, 1943, in Columbus, Ohio. He received his bachelor's degree in physics from MIT in 1965 and his doctorate in astronomy from Harvard in 1972. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell, then joined the faculty until he returned to MIT in 1978, spending the rest of his career there.

He was especially supportive of women in astronomy; more than half of his students were women. At a 2010 celebration of his life and work at MIT, called the "Jimboree," former students spoke about his gift for engaging them deeply in his research and then sending them off on their own, trusting that they could do the research themselves.

Students wrote their memories on white index cards because Elliot always had such cards and a pen in his pocket to jot down thoughts as they came to him.

Elliot is survived by his wife of 44 years, the former Elaine Kasparian; daughters Lyn of State College, Penn., and Martha of Brooklyn; sisters Suzanne Elliot of New London, Conn., and Martha Bureau of Piedmont, Calif.; a brother, Tom, of Arlington, Va.; and one granddaughter.

1 comment:

Laurel Kornfeld said...

So sorry to hear about this--67 is way too young in this day and age. I wish he had lived to see the New Horizons flyby and the resulting data that will show definitely that Pluto is a planet and that dwarf planets are planets too.