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Jack B. Zirker (1927–2022)

Zirker explored key questions in solar physics — the solar dynamo, active region formation, coronal heating, the solar cycle, coronal holes, and the generation of the solar wind. He was instrumental in the creation of the National Solar Observatory.

Published onMay 12, 2022
Jack B. Zirker (1927–2022)

Zirker in the Galapagos Islands in 2008. Photo courtesy NSF/NSO/AURA.

Dr. Jack B. Zirker, a longtime researcher at the Sacramento Peak Observatory and a key figure in the formation of the National Solar Observatory, died suddenly on Sunday, January 9, 2022, at the age of 94.

Zirker’s broad scientific interests ranged from coronal heating, the fine structure and physics of prominences, solar flares, eclipse studies, and innovative instrumental techniques. His work resulted in numerous research papers and later, a collection of popular books on a range of scientific topics.

Zirker started his career researching the chromosphere, in particular studying the spectra of spicules, both theoretically and observationally. Later, at Sacramento Peak he embarked on investigations of coronal holes and coronal waves. The investigations on these topics will continue with the arrival of the National Science Foundation’s Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope.

Born July 19, 1927, in Brooklyn, New York, Zirker served in the U.S. Army from 1945 to 1947. He then studied biomedical engineering at City College of New York and completed a Master of Science at New York University in 1953. In 1954, he interned at Sacramento Peak Observatory, in Sunspot, New Mexico. He received a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1956 with a thesis on temperature structures in the chromosphere and corona. He went on to work at Sacramento Peak until 1964, where he worked with Frank Orrall, Grant Athay, and Dick Thomas, among others.

From 1964 to 1976, Zirker was a professor in astronomy at the University of Hawai‘i where he took part in the development of the Mauna Kea site for astronomy. In 1976, Zirker returned to the Sacramento Peak Observatory as Director overseeing the transition from the United States Air Force to management by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) under an agreement with the National Science Foundation. In the early 1980’s, he was instrumental in creating the National Solar Observatory (NSO) under the umbrella of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) during the consolidation of the solar observatory programs at Sacramento Peak and Kitt Peak. He served as Acting Director of the NSO until 1984.

Jack was a keen and insightful scientist. His research work often involved taking a broad view of specific scientific questions, pulling together disjoint threads to clarify the outstanding puzzles and identifying ways to discriminate among various solutions observationally. Just last year he finished a retrospective paper, touching briefly on his work 50 years ago, but then circling back to key questions in solar physics — the solar dynamo, active region formation, coronal heating, the solar cycle, coronal holes, and the generation of the solar wind — that still await answers as we enter the era of DKIST. While regrettably Jack will not be here to see the coming advances in those topics, he would no doubt urge us to follow his encouragement in the closing sentence of that paper — on to the Future!

Jack is survived by Frances Cleveland, his partner of 32 years, his three children, Robin, Allie, and Pam, as well as four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Adapted from the original Sacramento Peak Observatory obituary written by Kevin Reardon and posted by Valentin M. Pillet, with permission.

See also Zirker’s AstroGen information.

Note from Jay Pasachoff: Zirker’s scientific contributions were included in several articles that appeared in an issue of the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage (JAHH) shortly after his death:

  • “The 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Solar Physics Division of the American Astronomical Society” [1]

  • “Total Solar Eclipses Then and Now” [2]

  • “Sun and Stars: Mutual Symbiosis” [3]

  • “That Was Then, This Is Now; On to the Future!” [4]

  • “Some Developments in Observational and Theoretical Solar Astronomy Since 1970” [5]

  • “Solar Physics and the Climate Problem” [6]

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