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John E. Littleton (1943–2010)

Littleton was a professor of physics at West Virginia University, where he played a key role in the expansion of astronomical research and establishing its strength in radio astronomy. His research interests included solar physics and late-type stellar atmospheres.

Published onJul 20, 2020
John E. Littleton (1943–2010)

John E. Littleton died on Wednesday the 20th of October, 2010.

John E. (Jack) Littleton was born on July 28, 1943, and grew up in Ballston Spa, New York. At age 12, he moved with his family to Bolivar, West Virginia, and graduated from Harpers Ferry High School in 1961. Jack was a standout athlete in high school and lettered in football, baseball, and basketball. He was the first person to graduate from a high school in West Virginia to become a professor of physics at West Virginia University (WVU). He received a B.Sc. degree in engineering physics from Cornell University in 1965 and entered the graduate program in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Rochester that fall. Just as he was beginning his doctoral research in theoretical astrophysics, he was involved in a fatal car accident, which killed his mother and his first wife, Joan. Jack himself was seriously injured and spent considerable time in the hospital. When he was released, he spent a year recuperating at his in-laws’ home. It is a testimony to Jack’s grit and determination that he was subsequently able to resume his graduate studies, and he received his doctorate in 1972 for a thesis entitled “A Quantum Mechanical Treatment of Longitudinal Plasma Waves in Stellar Plasmas” under the supervision of Hugh M. Van Horn and H. Lawrence Helfer.

Jack continued his research during postdoctoral appointments with the late A. G. W. Cameron (1925–2005) first at the Belfer Graduate School of Science at Yeshiva University and later at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, applying his plasma expertise to electron-ion relaxation in dense plasmas and to detonation waves in the degenerate carbon cores of evolved stars. He joined the faculty of the Department of Physics at WVU in 1975. Jack focused much of his energy on promoting interest in astronomy. Throughout his academic career he spoke at public schools in West Virginia, served as faculty advisor for the WVU Astronomy Club, began a planetarium program at WVU, and gave talks at star parties throughout the state. He also used the department’s on-campus telescope to promote public interest in the wonders of the night sky and for many years wrote a monthly astronomy column for the local newspaper. He retired from writing the column when the local paper insisted on photos for bylines. Jack never sought the limelight. He truly believed in making science accessible to the public. Colleagues remember him staying up all night once during the Mars closest approach to keep the observatory open for the hundreds of locals who wanted to get a glimpse of Mars that night.

Jack also helped to recruit additional astronomers to the faculty, and his tireless devotion to astronomy played a key role in the expansion of astronomy at WVU and subsequent renaming of the department as the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

By 1980, Jack’s research interests had shifted to problems in late-type stellar atmospheres, for which he credited the late Hollis R. Johnson (1928–2019) of Indiana University. Jack and his colleagues subsequently computed the relevant properties of molecules such as ZrO, TiO, and CaCl, which play important roles in the cool stellar atmospheres of asymptotic giant branch stars and carbon stars. In 1995, he participated in HI observations of late-type galaxies using the facilities of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in nearby Green Bank, WV, and this helped lead to the development of radio astronomy as an area of expertise within the department. By the late 1990s, Jack’s research interests had shifted again, this time to solar physics, and he joined the space physics research program of his colleague Earl Scime at WVU. From 1998 on he was involved in investigations of transport properties in the solar wind, frequently making use of electron data from the Ulysses spacecraft.

Jack was a regular contributor at the weekly meetings of the radio astronomy research group which began in 2006. His astronomy colleagues fondly recall Jack’s enthusiasm at those meetings as well as his help in establishing a new suite of graduate and undergraduate courses in astrophysics at WVU. The success of the current group, which consists of seven tenure track faculty, six postdocs and over thirty graduate and undergraduate students, is a great testament to Jack’s legacy as the sole astronomer at WVU for so many years. Upon the department’s move to White Hall in 2012, the rooftop telescope was dedicated to Jack and a library which houses his many books acquired over the years is named after him.

Jack began undergoing treatment for cancer in 2002, but he continued to work until retiring as professor emeritus in 2008. Jack always put his students first. He scheduled his cancer surgeries around his exam schedules and breaks to minimize the impact on his students, and he always had a positive attitude throughout his treatment. At the end of his life, he was under hospice care for about a month before dying at home in Morgantown, West Virginia, in October of 2010. He is survived by his third wife, Becky, and numerous family members. He met Becky while she was a nontraditional student in one of his astronomy classes. They were quickly inseparable, and she shared his love of astronomy and baseball. Jack will be remembered for his friendliness, ready smile, and good sense of humor, and for his passionate interest in astronomy and in his family and students. For many years, he hosted a Friday afternoon gathering for students and faculty that many graduate students still recall as their favorite graduate school experience. And the Super Bowl parties he and Becky hosted were legendary! He was a valued colleague, and he will be sorely missed.

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