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Charles Allen Whitney (1929-2017)

Author, editor, and popularizer of astronomy Whitney shared his expertise in variable stars with a broad audience.

Published onFeb 13, 2023
Charles Allen Whitney (1929-2017)
Figure 1

Photo credit: American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO)

Stellar atmospheres and pulsation researcher Charles A. Whitney, long-time resident of Weston, Massachusetts, laid his pen to rest on Monday, May 22, 2017, succumbing to complications from a broken hip (Alcock 2017). He was 88 years old.

The son of a civil engineer, Whitney was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. By his own description he “entered astronomy as a young boy … at the back end of a telescope under a clear sky” (Whitney 1975). As a teenager he spent one summer working as an assistant in an observatory before majoring in physics at MIT. After graduating in 1951, Whitney remained in Boston, attending graduate school at Harvard. In addition to completing a Ph.D. thesis on the pulsations of Cepheid variables under Richard Nelson Thomas, Whitney took advantage of the famous photographic and prism plates repository at the Harvard College Observatory for projects on the historical spectrum of eta Carinae in 1893 and the light curve of Nova Aquilae 1952 (Whitney 1952a, 1952b). After completing his Ph.D. in 1955, Whitney spent a year as an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institut d’Astrophysique in Liege, Belgium, before joining the staff of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO). In addition to his research on variable stars, Whitney engaged in pioneering work on the interactions between satellites and our atmosphere in the early years of the Space Age. In 1958 he became affiliated with Harvard, first as a lecturer and rising to the rank of Professor of Astronomy a decade later. He became Professor Emeritus in 1989 and retired from the SAO in 1995. Whitney was also a member of the IAU.

Whitney’s love for both formal and informal teaching was expressed not only through the courses he provided to undergraduate and graduate students at Harvard, but his pedagogical research, popular-level works in astronomy, and by serving on the advisory committee for the Children’s Television Workshop science series 3-2-1 Contact. Whitney was affiliated with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Science Education Department from 1989-1995, working with Philip Sadler and others on projects integrating computer simulations into physics and astronomy education. His popular-level celebration of the process of discovery in astronomy, The Discovery of Our Galaxy, was a finalist in the 1972 National Book Awards, and his Whitney’s Star Finder: A Field Guide to the Heavens was first published in 1974 and enjoyed several editions. Whitney introduced the famous work in navigation education of fellow Harvard astronomer Frances W. Wright to a new generation through Learn to Navigate by the Tutorial System Developed at Harvard (1991) and with co-author Kenneth R. Lang invited readers on a journey through our celestial neighborhood in Wanderers in Space: Exploration and Discovery in the Solar System (1991). He also shared his astronomical expertise with the art community through his detailed scientific interpretation of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings (Whitney 1986).

One of Whitney’s longest running projects was as volunteer editor of the Journal of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (JAAVSO), a task he admitted particularly appealed to him because “as I suppose is true of many teachers, I love words” (Whitney 1975). Director Janet Mattei recruited Whitney to take the reins of the journal in 1975, tasking him with upgrading and standardizing the format and content of the journal (Williams and Saladyga 2011). Whitney ultimately served as JAAVSO editor for 34 years, finally passing the baton in 2009. Long-time AAVSO staff member Elizabeth Waagen fondly recalled Whitney’s visits to the organization’s headquarters in Cambridge to work with her on the journal, and noted that he was often included in staff social events. A fan of standard poodles, Whitney routinely brought one dog in particular, Monique, to headquarters with him in his later years.

In his first editor’s note in JAAVSO, Whitney opined that “I am convinced that any amateur can stand under the stars alongside those who have access to the largest telescopes in the world” (Whitney 1975). His decades of service to the field he loved certainly reflect this philosophy.

References

  • Alcock, C. (2017) Charles A. Whitney. IAU.

  • Lang, K. R., and C. A. Whitney (1991) Wanderers in Space: Exploration and Discovery in the Solar System. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Waagen, E. O. (2023) Charles Whitney. Personal communication.

  • Whitney, C. A. (1952) The Light Curve of Nova Aquilae, 1952. Bulletin of the Harvard Observatory 921: 27-8.

  • Whitney, C. A. (1952) The Spectrum of Eta Carinae in 1893. Bulletin of the Harvard Observatory 921: 8-14.

  • Whitney, C. A. (1971) The Discovery of Our Galaxy. New York: Knopf.

  • Whitney, C. A. (1975) Editor’s Note. Journal of the American Association of Variable Star Observers 4: 1.

  • Whitney, C. A. (1975) Whitney’s Star Finder: A Field Guide to the Heavens. New York: Knopf.

  • Whitney, C. A. (1986) The Skies of Vincent Van Gogh. Art History 9(3): 351-62.

  • Whitney, C. A., and F. W. Wright (1991) Learn to Navigate by the Tutorial System Developed at Harvard. Centreville, MD: Cornell Maritime Press.

  • Williams, T. R., and M. Saladyga (2011) Advancing Variable Star Astronomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Additional References

Whitney’s AstroGen entry

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