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Richard E. Hills (1945–2022)

Hills was a world-class pioneer and innovator of submillimeter astronomy.

Published onOct 03, 2022
Richard E. Hills (1945–2022)

Photo credit: Astronomy & Geophysics.

Emeritus Professor Richard Edwin Hills FRS, a world leading innovator of millimeter and submillimeter radio astronomy died on Sunday June 5, 2022. He was 76.

Richard was born on September 30, 1945 and attended Bedford School. He was admitted to Queens’ College, Cambridge in 1964 to study for the Natural Sciences Tripos and he received his BA in Physics in 1967. Then he headed west, to the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) as a doctoral student in William John ‘Jack’ Welch’s radio astronomy group, which had begun in the late 1950s when UCB established the Hat Creek Radio Observatory (HCRO). Within a couple of years, Hill had co-authored papers on time-of-arrival measurements of NP 0352, the pulsar in the Crab Nebula. Meanwhile, his backstory concerned the development of a novel radio interferometer at millimeter wavelengths.

Richard’s five years in California shaped his career. His doctoral thesis on interferometric observations of galactic water vapor was made with a first-generation millimeter wave interferometer that he and other students had constructed. At the 50th anniversary celebrations of HCRO Richard regaled attendees with a recollection of what it was like to work with Jack Welch:

“Naturally Jack figured out how the interferometer should work, but we had a great time making some of the bits and pieces. I particularly recall making the delay lines out of a series of coaxial cables, which were all tied up with rope inside a box. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it turned out that what Jack taught me about telescopes and interferometers, plus how to set about actually making a technical project happen, was essentially everything I needed to know for all the subsequent things I have worked on.”

At HCRO Hills gained technical insight into fabricating parabolic reflectors for millimeter and submillimeter astronomy. His next career opportunity arose in 1972 when he was appointed to a research position at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, Bonn. With the newly inaugurated Effelsberg 100 m radio telescope he investigated maser action of methanol in Orion, finding it much weaker than the OH and H2O sources.

Richard Hills returned to Cambridge in 1974 as a research associate in the Cavendish Laboratory, a transition that put him on the threshold of a dazzling career in millimeter wave astronomy. He immediately became intensely interested in the proposals for a UK millimeter telescope and became the driving force in steering the project to an international collaboration involving the UK, the Netherlands, Canada and the University of Hawaii. This led to moving the telescope site from La Palma, Canary Islands to a higher and drier site on Mauna Kea.

One consequence of switching what became the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) to Hawaii was that it could operate at higher frequencies than originally anticipated, although the proposed methodology for setting the surface was at the limit for the accuracy required. Hills, with colleagues from Cambridge, worked out from fundamental principles a holographic technique to accomplish the task. He devoted great energy to getting the project approved and funded, and then as Project Scientist he monitored the design, fabrication and testing of the JCMT. His commitment to strong and loyal leadership was an important aspect in the successful delivery of the telescope. Hills moved his family to Hawaii so that he could work alongside the engineers and scientists from the UK to see the telescope through to completion. In recognition of the excellent performance of the JCMT, the RAS awarded its Jackson-Gwilt Medal and Prize 1989 to Richard Hills for “helping to provide a telescope for astronomy in the UK, Dutch, Canadian and Hawaiian communities that is without equal anywhere in the world.”

From 2007 to 2012, Richard was Project Scientist working on the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an aperture synthesis telescope in Chile. ALMA combines the data from 66 individual dishes to form images equivalent in angular resolution to those from a telescope of up to 15 km in diameter. This instrument produces images with unprecedented clarity and sensitivity of objects ranging from asteroids to planet-forming discs around young stars and galaxies in the early Universe. Hills was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2014 for his outstanding leadership of this challenging international mission.

Richard was a wonderful colleague with good friends in academia throughout the world. He enjoyed mingling and chatting with students, younger researchers, and his colleague fellows at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. By character modest and unassuming, his genial personality and smiling face radiated his love of life, knowledge and friendship.

Adapted and reproduced from the original obituary in Astronomy & Geophysics with permission of the author.

For more information, see Hills’ AstroGen entry.

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