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Lyman Spitzer, 1914-1997


1914 - 1997

On March 31, we lost a distinguished astrophysicist and an accomplished mountaineer when Lyman Spitzer died suddenly at his home in Princeton, New Jersey.

Lyman was born in Toledo, Ohio, and obtained a Bachelor’s degree in physics from Yale in 1935. After spending a year at Cambridge University, he earned a Doctorate in Astrophysics from Princeton in 1938. Following a year at Harvard, he joined the Yale faculty. During World War II he worked for the U.S. Navy investigating the principles of underwater sound. In 1947, Princeton University invited him to become Chairman of the Department of Astronomy and Director of the Observatory. During the 32 years he held these positions, he joined with Martin Schwarzschild to build one of the country’s leading graduate programs in astrophysics. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and earned the rare distinction of foreign membership in the Royal Society of London in 1990. He was awarded the National Medal of Sciences in 1980 and the prestigious Crafoord Prize of the Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1985.

His research covered many areas, including the dynamics of star clusters, the physical processes in the gas between stars, and plasma physics. He was a leader in developing magnetic confinement for controlled thermonuclear fusion, and founded the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. In 1946, he published a stimulating paper on “Astronomical Advantages of an Extra-Terrestrial Observatory,” which developed the concept of space-based telescopes. He brought these ideas to reality with the development of a 32-inch diameter telescope and associated spectrometer for the Copernicus satellite that NASA launched in 1972. He also led many preliminary studies for the Hubble Space Telescope, and provided much advice to NASA on its operation.

Lyman began climbing on trips to the Alps and the Tetons. Then, around 1964, through association with colleagues, his climbing entered a more technical phase with weekends in the Shawangunks, trips to the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, and in winter on Huntington Ravine on Mt. Washington. In 1965 he participated in an Alpine Club of Canada expedition to Baffin Island. There he climbed Mt. Asgard and made the first ascent of Mt. Thor by the north ridge with Don Morton. Afterward, Lyman walked alone some 32 miles down the Weasel Valley and along the fjord to the town of Pangnirtung in order to return home ahead of the rest of the expedition. In 1967, he joined George Wallerstein and other astronomical colleagues in the Canadian Rocky Mountains east of Prince George, B.C. There he made first ascents of Mt. Walrus, Mt. Petrie, and Mt. Plaskett, the latter two named by the climbers after two prominent Canadian astronomers. Lyman returned to Canada with three Princeton colleagues in 1970 to climb Mt. Waddington from the Tiedemann Glacier.

His later climbing took him to the Dolomites and many places in the United States, including the Flat Irons, Eldorado Canyon, Lumpy Ridge and the Jackson-Johnson route on Hallet’s Peak in Colorado, Seneca Rocks in West Virginia, the Needles in South Dakota, White Horse in New Hampshire, and Joshua Tree in California, as well as many routes in the Shawangunks. In 1976, Princeton University authorities were unsettled to find him climbing Cleveland Tower, the high point of the campus. He also climbed extensively with his wife, Doreen, and his four children and their children; to commemorate this bond, his family wore climbing slings at his memorial service. He was a member of the American Alpine Club and the Alpine Club. Lyman will be missed by his numerous colleagues, both astronomers and climbers.

Donald C. Morton