Pomerantz, former president of the Bartol Research Institute at the University of Delaware, was a trailblazer in the field of Antarctic astronomy.
Cosmic ray and Antarctic astronomy pioneer Martin A. Pomerantz left our community on Saturday, October 25, 2008, succumbing to esophageal cancer at his home in San Rafael, California. He was 91 years old.
Pomerantz was born in Brooklyn, New York. As a young teen, the freshly minted Boy Scout attended a hometown parade for Antarctic explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd, never dreaming that he himself would make 26 trips to the South Pole (Shoemaker 2000). Upon graduating from high school, he attended Syracuse University, initially intending to become a journalist. However, a general education course in physics for non-scientists sparked an interest in science, leading him to take summer classes to gain the necessary mathematical background to switch his major to physics (Shoemaker 2000). After graduating from Syracuse in 1937 he received a M.S. at the University of Pennsylvania in 1938. While at UPenn he took a life-changing year-long course on nuclear physics and cosmic rays with Bartol Research Foundation Assistant Director Thomas H. Johnson. Pomerantz ultimately worked with Johnson through a Bartol research assistantship, beginning his nearly lifelong career at the Institute, which was originally affiliated with both Swarthmore College and the Franklin Institute (Shoemaker 2000).
Through the 1940s Pomerantz engaged in pioneering balloon-borne studies of cosmic rays, comparing the readings from a sub-Arctic site on Hudson Bay with those from a variety of other latitudes to demonstrate that the sun’s baseline magnetic field was weaker than originally thought. This research formed the basis of his Ph.D. thesis through Temple University (1951). Firmly established as an expert in cosmic ray physics by the mid-1950s, Pomerantz was tasked by the U.S. National Science Foundation to set up a cosmic ray detector at the McMurdo Antarctica base (1959) with a second detector set up at the South Pole in 1964 . During the same period Pomerantz became Director of Bartol, and later its President.
Pomerantz recognized that the cold, stable, clear air of Antarctica presented a unique opportunity that could be exploited by many types of astrophysical research, and over the next few decades played a pivotal role in initiating many such projects, in addition to continuing to observe cosmic rays over several solar cycles. In 1979 Pomerantz and his collaborators used a small telescope equipped with a sodium vapor cell to measure solar oscillations for 120 straight hours during the Antarctic summer, the start of pioneering work on helioseismology . Pomerantz also conducted submillimeter work in Antarctica, including on anisotropies in the cosmic microwave background.
When he wasn’t at the “bottom” of the world, Pomerantz taught seminars for the Swarthmore College Astronomy Department in the 1960s, where his students included later notable astronomers including Sandra Moore Faber and John Mather (Giardinelli 2004). Due to changes in the Institute’s relationship with Swarthmore, he moved Bartol to the University of Delaware in 1977, as the Bartol Research Institute, which merged with the Department of Physics and Astronomy in 2005. He stepped down and became President Emeritus in 1987 and finally retired from Bartol in 1990, but he continued to travel to the South Pole in several subsequent years. His last trip was in 1994, which included the dedication of the Martin A. Pomerantz Observatory, a facility located 1 km from the main pole station, in a region of minimal electromagnetic radiation ‘pollution.’
In 1990 Pomerantz relocated to Huntsville, Alabama, and bought an automobile dealership in Muscle Shoals. After a decade of this second career, he moved to San Rafael, California and left the dealership in the hands of his business partner. His book Cosmic Rays was published for the Commission on College Physics in 1971. He also reflected on his life and career in Astronomy on Ice: Observing the Universe from the South Pole (2004). After his death, the University of Delaware acquired a large collection of Pomerantz’s records, reports, and scientific correspondence for archival purposes (Bryant 2009).
Pomerantz was a Fellow of the American Physical Society, American Geophysical Union, and American Association for the Advancement of Science, and received numerous professional honors, including the Prix de la Belgica (1985), the National Science Foundation Distinguished Public Service Award (1987), the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement medal (1990), and honorary doctorates from Swarthmore College, the University of Uppsala in Sweden, Syracuse University, and University of Delaware. The Pomerantz Tableland (Usarp Mountains, Antarctica) is named in his honor.
Bryant, T. (2009) University acquires collection of pioneering astrophysicist Martin Pomerantz. University of Delaware Daily.
Giardinelli, A. (2004) A Dream Deferred, Swarthmore College Bulletin.
Pomerantz, M. A. (1971) Cosmic Rays. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.
Pomerantz, M. A. (2004) Astronomy on Ice: Observing the Universe from the South Pole. Bloomington: Xlibris.
Shoemaker, B. (2000) Interview of Martin A. Pomerantz. Byrd Polar Research Center Archival Program.
Office of Polar Programs (1995) NSF dedicates Martin A. Pomerantz Observatory at South Pole. Antarctic Journal of the United States 30(1-4): 3.
Rejcek, P. (2008) Martin A. Pomerantz. Father of South Pole astronomy, 91, Leaves larger-than-life legacy. Antarctic Sun.
See also Pomerantz’s AstroGen entry.