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James Robert Lewis (1959-2019)

Lewis' contributions to astronomy spanned Galactic dynamics, large survey programs and a number of important support roles for data reduction and analysis.

Published onFeb 08, 2023
James Robert Lewis (1959-2019)
Figure 1

Photo credit: Gerard Williger

James R. Lewis passed away due to cancer on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019. He was 59.

Lewis was born in Washington, DC on Dec. 31, 1959, to Walter and Marilyn (Milewski) Lewis. Jim often quipped that at his birth, his father was offered a choice of when to induce labor, and December 31st was chosen for the tax deduction. He grew up in Fairfax, Virginia, and played football as a youth. He got his B.S. at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville in 1982 or 1983. He then went to Australian National University in Canberra in 1983 to do his Ph.D. with Ken Freeman. In 1986, he went to the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, England, where he spent the rest of his life.

For his Ph.D., Jim measured how the velocity dispersion of the old disk stars in the Milky Way changed with radius. This had not been previously measured and was of interest in the context of the apparent stability of the Galactic disk. We now know there is a bar at the center of the Milky Way, but that was not yet part of the accepted wisdom, and it was unclear what was stabilizing the disk against bisymmetric instabilities. The concept of a dark halo in the Galaxy was still new at the time: was it the dark halo, or was it the random velocities of the stars?

Jim measured velocities and metallicities for about 600 old disk stars between about 1 kpc and 17 kpc from the Galactic center, and showed that the velocity dispersion was about 100 km/s in the inner disk and decreases exponentially out to 17 kpc, as expected from basic theory. The central dispersion was believed to be high enough to stabilize the inner disk. His 1989 paper on his thesis work has more than 260 citations and is still regularly cited more than 30 years later.

Later in his career, Jim participated in a number of survey programs. These included the Las Campanas IR Survey, various United Kingdom IR Telescope (UKIRT) and Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope (VISTA) surveys including UKIDSS (UKIRT Infrared Deep Sky Survey), VVV (VISTA Variables in the Via Lactea) Survey and other projects, with additional efforts with the VLT Survey Telescope (VST) and the Gaia-ESO Survey. These data-intensive efforts often grew out of some of the many instrumentally-related projects to which he contributed, including data reduction pipelines for the Wide Field Fibre Optical Spectrograph (WYFFOS) on the William Herschel Telescope (WHT); the Wide Field Camera on the Isaac Newton Telescope. These studies led to the development of the VISTA Data Flow System for processed images taken with Wide Field Camera (WFCAM) on UKIRT and VISTA InfraRed CAMera (VIRCAM), and more recently to the deployment and development of the Gaia-ESO, WHT Enhanced Area Velocity Explorer (WEAVE) and ESO 4-m Multi-Object Spectrograph (4MOST) data analysis systems.

Jim was an avid attendee of the Astronomical Data Analysis and Systems (ADASS) conferences over many years and a keen member of the Program Organizing Committee for his last 14 years, a record. He loved taking a full part in ADASS gatherings and was heartbroken when due to ill health he had to miss one meeting and lose his coveted "Friends of Betty [Stobie]" gold star. They were light-heartedly awarded to people who had perfect attendance over the years, but actually were an achievement to earn.

Jim kept his love for football all his life. In Cambridge, he joined the Jesus College flag football team, sharing his skills and saving many a game, and wearing #72 in honor of his Washington heroes, Diron Talbert and Joe Rutgens. When his beloved Burgundy & Gold "Hogs" won Super Bowl XXII, he was up till the wee hours in England, leading the celebrations by hailing them with whoops of happy surprise.

Jim had an even deeper passion for music. He was already an accomplished viola player when he arrived at ANU in Canberra, and soon became part of the Canberra musical scene and a regular member of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. In England, he played with the Cambridge Philharmonic for a number of years, where he met and later married a horn player, Carole Smith.

Jim combined music with his comical side. Coming from suburban Washington, DC, Jim was not a small town person. During his PhD work at the Australian National University he often grumbled about life as an undergraduate back in Charlottesville, Virginia. He eventually wrote the lyrics for a long song about Charlottesville, which was regularly sung at party times. The words may have been lost over the years. Jim also liked cooking, frequently citing a recipe for "chocolate slop" (pudding) which he found at Mt. Stromlo and Siding Spring Observatories and shared with his friends, and creating wonderful Sunday roasts for his friends in England.

Jim was a wonderful human being and a great colleague. We will remember him not only for his incredible depth of knowledge, but also for his wonderful personality, his keen sense of humor, his ability to quote whole passages of Fawlty Towers without pause and appreciation of Groucho Marx. We are grateful to have had him as our colleague and friend and we will miss him dearly as we know many whose lives he touched will.

Jim suffered from cancer for many years, but in spite of his periods of ill health he was always determined to continue working on all of the projects he was involved in and did so up to a few days before he died on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019. Jim was buried in the churchyard at St. Mary's in Hardwick, England, resting peacefully in the middle of the community of which he was a major part. He was 59 and is survived by Carole and their two children Jess and Jacob, his brother Walter Lewis, sister Marilyn Giles and four nieces.

The authors gratefully acknowledge additional material provided by Ian Redmount, Mike Fitzpatrick, Stephen Gwyn and Keith Shortridge.

Lewis’ AstroGen entry

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