Tuesday, October 12, 2010

John Huchra

I found out this morning that John Huchra died last Friday. And while other bloggers have paid tribute to his significant contributions to Astronomy, I want pay homage to the man I knew personally.

John was one of the kindest, friendliest, and cheeriest professors in the Harvard Astronomy Department. I recall taking a class with him, and to use a metaphor he would probably appreciate, it was a lot like taking a drink from a firehose. He would show up to class with a huge stack of transparencies (this was in the pre-Powerpoint era) and start going through them. As the class period went on, he would go through them faster and faster in an effort to finish them all in the time alloted. He would also send emails to the class at 3am or so. He was full of energy and never seemed to sleep, although I understand he slowed down quite a bit after his heart attack a few years ago.

He was also the one who handed out copies of a book, "A PhD is Not Enough" to all the incoming first years, in an effort to open our eyes to the challenges of a career in astronomy. He genuinely cared that his students succeeded, but also understood the importance of family and balance, since he had his own son whom he treasured and doted on.

I ran into him once at an AAS meeting during his term as President, and not only did he remember me, but he took the time to chat for a few minutes and catch up with me before he had to hurry on to his next appointment. I was touched that he took the time to talk with me, given that I never worked with him scientifically. The last time I spoke with him was when I visited the CfA to give a talk this past spring. I dropped by his office for a chat, and we spent some time talking about our kids, career prospects, and commiserating about the poor economy.

John was a first class astronomer, but also a terrific mentor and a wonderfully nice person. I'm deeply saddened by his passing and will miss him a lot.