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Guido Münch (1921–2020)

Münch conducted research in infrared radiometry for NASA’s Mariner, Viking, and Pioneer planetary probes, and made important contributions to the understanding of galactic structure, solar physics, and stellar atmosphere theory.

Published onJul 28, 2020
Guido Münch (1921–2020)
<p><em>Guido Münch at Mt. Wilson Observatory in the early 1960s. Courtesy of Christopher Munch.</em></p>

Guido Münch at Mt. Wilson Observatory in the early 1960s. Courtesy of Christopher Munch.

Guido Münch died on Wednesday the 29th of April, 2020.

Guido Münch was recognized early in his career for his exceptional capability as both a theoretical and observational astrophysicist by such renowned scientists as Otto Struve and Nobel Laureate S. Chandreshekhar. Münch conducted research in infrared radiometry for NASA’s Mariner, Viking, and Pioneer planetary probes, and made important contributions to the understanding of galactic structure, solar physics, and stellar atmosphere theory.

Born on June 9, 1921, in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, Münch received his B.S. in civil engineering and mathematics (1938) and M.S. in mathematics (1944) from the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM), and a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics from the University of Chicago (1946), where his thesis advisor was S. Chandrasekhar. He returned to Mexico that year to work at the Tacubaya Observator­y at the University of Mexico as an Astronomer, but in 1947 accepted a position as an Instructor at the University of Chicago and was promoted to Assistant Professor two years later. From 1951 to 1977, Münch was an Assistant Professor, then Full Professor, at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and concurrently a staff member of the Mount Wil­son and Palomar Observatories. After this he spent 14 years as Scientific Director of the Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie in Heidelberg, Germany (1977–91), and was subse­quently the Institute’s Director Emeritus. Münch was also a Research Associate at the Instituto de As­trofísica de Canarias in Tenerife, Spain (1992–96).

He received competitive awards from the Guggenheim Foundation (in 1944, 1945, and 1958) and a Fulbright Grant in 1958.

Münch supervised the Ph. D. theses of 19 graduate students, among them James G. Gunn, Virginia Trimble, Jay Frogel, and S. Eric Persson [1].

According to Osterbrock [1], Münch’s papers and review articles to study the interstellar medium are classics. “He also used [hot O-type] stars in high galactic latitudes to study interstellar gas far from the plane. Everyone knew ‘it should not be there,’ but Guido showed that it is, and that it is infalling.”

Münch not only understood astrophysics, but also knew how to, “use instruments to their limits, and beyond. He has thought creatively of problems that needed to be solved, of how they could be solved with high spectral resolution, and then he has gone out and solved them. He had the theoretical insights, the mathematical facility, and the instrumental skills to do so” [1].

Among the most significant of his many publications are “Interstellar Absorption Lines in Distant Stars” (1957, [2]), “Galactic Structure and Interstellar Absorption Lines” (1965, [3]), and, significantly, “An Analysis of the Spectrum of Mars” (1964, [4]), which appeared in volume 139 of The Astrophysical Journal. Coauthored with Lewis D. Kaplan and Hyron Spinrad, the “Analy­sis” correctly revised downward by a factor of ten the then-accepted value for the atmos­pheric pressure of Mars, which led to fundamental changes in the NASA’s plans to explore the planet.

Over the course of his six-decade career, Münch’s honors included: election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1963), the National Academy of Sciences (1967), and the Third World Academy of Sciences, in Trieste, Italy (1984); the NASA Medal for Exceptional Scien­tific Achievement (1974); the Prince of Asturias Prize for Scientific Investigation (1989); an honorary doctorate from the Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica, Óptica y Electrónica (INAOE); and the Grand Cross of the Civil Order of Alfonso X the Wise (Orden Civil de Alfonso X el Sabio) from the Kingdom of Spain (1998). In 1989, the International Astronomical Union or­ganized a special conference in Granada, Spain, in his honor, entitled “Guido’s Jubilee.”

Münch died peacefully at home in Pasadena, California, and is survived by his four children: Frederick, SiriJodha, Amelia, and Christopher.

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