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Jean-Pierre Swings (1943-2023)

Swings, former IAU General Secretary, conducted a wide range of observational research ranging from solar physics, B[e]-type stars, quasars, to gravitational lenses.

Published onFeb 09, 2023
Jean-Pierre Swings (1943-2023)
Figure 1

Photo credit: IAU

Swings, passed away on Monday, January 16, 2023. He was 79.

Born in Pasadena, California, on June 25, 1943, Swings was immersed in astronomy from childhood. His father was the Belgian astronomer Pol Swings, who spent time working at several U.S. observatories, including the Mount Wilson Observatory, and he sometimes brought the young Swings with him. “I remember as a child crawling into the spectrograph at Mount Wilson to mount photographic plates in the plateholder,” recalled Swings in a 2018 interview for the book The International Astronomical Union - Uniting the Community for 100 Years. “So I’ve been in astronomy all my life.”

Indeed, a 12-year-old Swings even appears in the official picture from the IX IAU General Assembly in Dublin in 1955, which he attended while his father was IAU Vice President.

When it came to his studies, Swings initially chose physical engineering, following an interest in how it relates to space technologies, and aiming to go into optics. This led him to embark on a master’s degree in space engineering at the University of Liège in Belgium. He subsequently earned a Ph.D. and D.Sc. in astrophysics in Liège, and also joined the team at the observatory there as an assistant.

During his studies, he attended the XIII IAU General Assembly in Prague in 1967 — his first in a professional capacity — where he gave a presentation on solar abundances. After completing his D.Sc., Swings spent three years in the U.S., in postdoctoral positions at JILA in Boulder, Colorado, and at the Hale Observatories. He returned to Belgium in 1973.

As he progressed in his career, Swings developed special interests in many areas of astronomy, including solar physics, B[e]-type stars, quasars and gravitational lenses. As might have been predicted from his childhood memories of Mount Wilson, he preferred the practical side of the discipline, and his passion for it shone through in the 2018 interview.

“I’ve never done theory,” he remarked. “I like to observe, to play with instruments — to put a plate in a spectrograph and develop it at the end of an observing night, even observing with small telescopes and going out and looking at the sky — not least at La Silla. I loved it.”

Swings also developed a major second strand of his career through his heavy involvement in astropolitics. Alongside his scientific research, he served on numerous committees in ESA, ESO and the European Science Foundation. These activities included chairing the advisory structure of the ESO Very Large Telescope project and its site selection, and serving on the Space Advisory Group of the European Commission for its 7th Framework Programme in support of scientific research. Together with Lodewijk Woltjer, he was also one of the four founders of the European Astronomical Society.

The IAU also benefited from Swings’ commitment to this side of science. In 1981, he accepted an invitation to become Assistant General Secretary of the IAU, and officially took on the role the following year, at the XVIII General Assembly in Patras, Greece.

He then took over as General Secretary at the XIX General Assembly in Delhi in November 1985, and his biggest task in this role was organizing the XX General Assembly in Baltimore in 1988.

Swings described these meetings as linchpin events for a thriving and interconnected global astronomy community. “Here, people were happy to learn about the exciting discoveries at ESO, CTIO, at Hawai‘i and other places,” he said. “It was simply the place to be to learn new things and indeed to have face-to-face conversations with colleagues from all over the world.”

As General Secretary, Swings also emphasized the outward-facing aspects of the role, promoting the representation of the IAU at several other bodies with which it is affiliated. These included what was then called the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), and the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR).

After finishing his term as General Secretary, Swings continued to act as an advisor to the IAU Executive Committee until 1991.

After retiring, he remained an honorary professor at the University of Liège, and spent time on some of his other diverse interests, including history, geopolitics and the history of music. He died in Liège on January 16, 2023 at the age of 79. He will be much missed by the entire astronomical community; whose thoughts are now with his family.

Adapted and reproduced with permission from Swings’ IAU obituary

Swings’ AstroGen entry

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