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Alastair Graham Walker Cameron (1925–2005)

Published onDec 01, 2005
Alastair Graham Walker Cameron (1925–2005)

Alastair Graham Walker Cameron, one of the most creative and influential astrophysicists of his generation, passed away on 3 October 2005, at the age of 80, at his home in Tucson. Subsequent to his retirement from Harvard University, where he had been a member of the faculty from 1973 through 1999, Cameron remained active as a Senior Research Scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory of the University of Arizona.

Cameron had a distinguished career during which he made outstanding contributions both in scientific research and in public service to science. Notable among the latter are the years he spent as Chairman of the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences from 1976 to 1982. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the recipient of a number of awards for his diverse contributions to the sciences, including the J. Lawrence Smith Medal of the National Academy of Sciences in 1988, the Leonard Medal of the American Meteoritical Society in 1994, the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship of the American Astronomical Society in 1997, and the Hans A. Bethe prize of the Division of Nuclear Physics of the American Physical Society for 2006, for outstanding work in nuclear physics and astrophysics. He was enormously active in the organization of conferences and workshops and in an editorial capacity, for a number of journals in astronomy, astrophysics, and space physics. Over the course of his career, he made seminal contributions to such diverse areas of astronomical and astrophysical research as nuclear reactions in stars, nucleosynthesis, the abundances of the elements in the Solar System, meteoritics, stellar evolution, neutron stars, the origin of the Solar System, the physics of planets and planetary atmospheres, and the origin of the Moon.

Born on 21 June 1925 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Cameron received his undergraduate degree from the University of Manitoba and his doctorate in nuclear physics from the University of Saskatchewan in 1952. He taught for two years at Iowa State and then spent seven years as a Senior Research Officer at Chalk River. It was from this period that his important early contributions to nuclear astrophysics emerged. His research addressed a broad range of problems concerning the origin of the elements, culminating in the publication in 1957 of a discussion of stellar evolution and nucleosynthesis which, together with the paper by E.M. Burbidge, G.F. Burbidge, W.A. Fowler, and F. Hoyle, substantially defined the field of nucleosynthesis as we understand it today.

Cameron joined the staff of the NASA Institute for Space Studies in New York and served as a Senior Scientist from 1961 to 1966, then continued on to the Belfer Graduate School of Science of Yeshiva University in New York, prior to moving to Harvard. Working with an increasing number of graduate students and postdocs, Cameron continued his studies in nuclear physics, concentrating on building systematics of nuclear mass formulae, nuclear level densities, thermonuclear reaction rates, and weak interaction rates. These nuclear systematics, coupled to early calculations of supernova explosions, enabled the first detailed numerical investigations of explosive nucleosynthesis from which the identification of 56Ni as the dominant product emerged.

During these years, Cameron's research activities and interests expanded considerably to encompass broad areas of space physics, including specifically the origin of the Solar System. Notable here is the significant role he played in the early formulation and development of the impact theory for the origin of the Moon. This theory posits - and early numerical simulations by Cameron and his collaborators confirmed - that the collision of a large, Mars sized object with the Earth early in its history yields debris from which the Moon can coalesce, and can account for both an iron-depleted Moon and the masses and angular momentum of the Earth-Moon system.

Cameron was an extremely imaginative and productive scientist whose contributions profoundly influenced many areas of research in what he liked to refer to as cosmogony. The proceedings of the symposium which celebrated his sixtieth birthday were indeed published, at his request, under the title "Cosmogonical Processes." He was also a strong early advocate of distributed computing, as anyone who visited his research office at Harvard will well remember. To those who worked closely with him, as students, postdocs, or colleagues, he will be remembered for his encouragement of young scientists, his enthusiastic acceptance of new ideas, and his pure enjoyment of his science.

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