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Michael Molnar (1945-2023)

Molnar pioneered ultraviolet photometric studies of magnetic stars.

Published onMay 14, 2024
Michael Molnar (1945-2023)

Photo credit:  Shelley Molnar

Michael R. Molnar, a person with an extraordinary wide range of interests and talents, passed away in February 2023 at the age of 77. Mike came from Bucknell University to UW Madison for graduate study in Astronomy and received his Astronomy Ph.D .in 1971. In August 1970 he had nearly finished his PhD thesis when Sterling Hall, which houses the Wisconsin Department of Astronomy, was severely damaged by a truck bomb explosion. Mike's office caught fire, destroying all of his PhD data and thesis manuscripts along with many of his belongings. Despite this adversity, Mike reconstructed his results and 5 months later successfully defended his thesis “B-type stars with discrepant colors”. The forward to Mike’s thesis reflects on the huge impact of the event, “In this bombing a researcher died, several people were injured, and many lost their life’s work. This thesis is dedicated to these people and to the hope that such events will never occur again.”

Working with Professor Robert C. Bless for his Ph.D. thesis, Mike undertook photometric and spectroscopic studies of helium-weak stars. These are B stars where optical colors indicate higher atmospheric temperatures than are derived based on the strengths of the optical region helium absorption lines. His data included digital spectrophotometric scans extending to near the ultraviolet atmospheric limit to measure the helium discontinuity and thereby check for helium over abundances. Characteristic of Mike, his 1971 thesis contains high quality data that were carefully interpreted. He concluded that helium-weak stars are deficient in atmospheric helium, possibly a result of the presence of magnetic field and associated atmosphere diffusion. Due to the loss of his data, Mike was unable to publish the results from his thesis research.

In 1970 Mike joined the Wisconsin Orbiting Astronomical Observatory-A2 (OAO-A2) satellite team led by Prof. Ted Houck at Goddard Space Flight Center where he gained hands on experience in operating a space observatory. In 1971 he accepted a postdoc at the Laboratory for Atmosphere and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado-Boulder. During Mike’s time in Madison and at Goddard, ultraviolet space astronomy rapidly advanced as data streamed from the successful Wisconsin Experiment Package on the OAO-A2. Building on this knowledge Mike extended his thesis investigations of the influence of surface structures on hot stars by analyzing variability in the far ultraviolet. This research included an innovative application of the far ultraviolet spectrometer on the Mariner 9 Mars Mission to obtain spectra of OB stars. While at LASP he completed his highly sited multi-wavelength study connecting light curves to varying atmospheric opacities of the magnetic star α2 CVn. This study, derived from 6 days of continuous OAO-A2 observations, quantitatively demonstrated that the light variations of α2 CVn are due to the combination of stellar rotation and varying atmospheric absorption line strengths.

In 1974 Mike joined the University of Toledo Department of Physics and Astronomy where he became an Associate Professor. While at Toledo Mike extended his exploration of the impact of surface features on the spectrum of hot stars based on data from several space ultraviolet observatories. During his time at Toledo Mike met Shelly Tchorz, who became his wife of 47 years. As Mike’s interests continued to broaden in 1979 Mike left Toledo for an industrial position.

From 1979 until his eventual retirement Mike worked in a variety of industries in areas ranging from research and development to downhole drilling. However in the early 1990s two of Mike’s interests, numismatics and astronomy, came together. As Mike explored the astrological iconography on Roman coins he developed a theory for the "Magi's star.” He interpreted this event as a description of a remarkable pair of highly visible eclipses of Jupiter by the Moon. These occurred in the constellation Aries that was associated with King Herod and was likely interpreted as a sign of a major event. He presented his findings in a 1995 paper in The Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society and later in his 1999 Rutgers University Press book "The Star of Bethlehem: the legacy of the Magi". His book, which is still in print, received wide attention and praise by critics and readers.

While Mike retained his interest in astronomical matters, his focus later in life moved to gaining an understanding connections between properties of varnishes and the sound quality of violins. In the process he became an internationally recognized expert in understanding the role of cremonese varnishes in violins. He was actively continuing his research on this topic at the time of his death. Michael Molnar exemplified the best of astronomy through his life-long demonstration of the multiple ways creative and inquisitive people can contribute to and beyond their initial field of expertise.

Molnar’s AstroGen entry

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