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Andrew E. Lange (1957–2010)

Published onDec 01, 2011
Andrew E. Lange (1957–2010)

The worlds of physics and astrophysics were stunned to learn on 22 January 2010 that Andrew Lange, the Marvin L. Goldberger Professor of Physics at Caltech, had taken his own life the night before. He had succumbed to the severe depression that he had suffered from for many years, unbeknownst to even his closest colleagues.

Lange will perhaps be best remembered as the co-leader of Boomerang, the balloon-borne experiment that provided the first high-angular-resolution map of the cosmic microwave background (CMB). And while this was certainly his most notable achievement, Andrew amassed a record of accomplishment as an instrumentalist, leader, mentor, and communicator that extended much further.

Andrew was born in Urbana, Illinois on July 23, 1957, the son of an architect and a librarian, and raised primarily in Connecticut. His family and early friends remember him as a serious and extremely intelligent child and young man. Andrew Lange's lifelong interest in the CMB was nurtured as an undergraduate at Princeton University by David Wilkinson, and he recalled fondly a summer spent working with John Mather at Goddard Space Flight Center.

Andrew Lange went to graduate school in physics at Berkeley where he worked in Paul Richards' group. Although his thesis project, the Berkeley-Nagoya rocket experiment, showed an anomalous sub-millimeter excess in the CMB spectrum that was shortly thereafter shown by a later flight of the same rocket and COBE-FIRAS to be incorrect, Lange's talents were recognized by the physics department at Berkeley who appointed him shortly after his PhD (1987) to their faculty. While on the Berkeley faculty, Andrew obtained early detections of the Sunyaev-Zeldovich effect, upper limits to small-angle CMB fluctuations, and important infrared constraints to the interstellar medium. He also led a pioneering instrument operating 300 mK detectors for a small infrared satellite experiment. This early work showed high ambition and daring, and it pioneered new techniques that paid off later in a number of ways in CMB science and in infrared/sub-mm astronomy.

At a meeting of Packard Fellows (he was awarded the Fellowship in 1989), Lange met Frances Arnold, another Fellow from Caltech, fell in love, and thus wound up moving to Caltech in 1994. Upon arriving, Lange led a team that proposed a space CMB mission (FIRE), one of several proposals spawned by the exciting results flowing from COBE. While FIRE lost out to the WMAP team, this disappointment freed Lange and his collaborators to focus on Boomerang, a balloon-borne experiment which, although of more limited scope than the satellite mission, could be flown far more quickly for far less money. Their efforts paid off with a long-duration Antarctic balloon flight in 1998 and the dramatic announcement, in May 2000, of the remarkable science results from this flight. Boomerang provided the first high-resolution high-signal-to-noise map of the CMB from which was obtained a crystal-clear measurement of the first acoustic peak in the CMB power spectrum, and thus a robust determination of the geometry of the Universe. This experiment, widely recognized in cosmology as a watershed event, helped usher in the era of precision cosmology, with precise constraints to several cosmological parameters and strong evidence in support of inflation. These results were confirmed a few days later by MAXIMA, a balloon experiment that Lange helped get started, as well as a string of subsequent suborbital experiments and then WMAP.

Over the next years, Andrew continued to improve the precision of CMB cosmological-parameter measurements, leading or participating in a string of subsequent CMB experiments, including the Planck satellite (a partial outgrowth of the FIRE proposal). But he also focused increasingly on the search for the CMB-polarization signature of inflationary gravitational waves, initiating a string of projects in this direction.

Andrew Lange loved to work in the laboratory, and his legacy includes several generations of novel instrumentation for CMB studies and infrared/submillimeter astronomy. The spider-web bolometers that he and Jamie Bock developed dominated sub-orbital CMB science (and beyond) for nearly 15 years, and the transition-edge sensors he and colleagues have been developing more recently are poised to play a defining role in the coming decade.

As a mentor too, Andrew Lange amassed an extraordinary track record. He had a unique ability to identify and attract the most talented young scientists, to motivate them and provide them with what they needed to succeed. He routinely relinquished leadership of projects that he had initiated to younger colleagues. The number of his former students, postdocs, and other younger collaborators who now occupy top faculty and senior-scientist positions is remarkable. Collectively, his former students and postdocs are, as Andrew did, "making measurable what is not so," a Galileo quotation that Lange was drawn to.

In the year before his death, Andrew served as Chairman of the Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy at Caltech, broadening the scope of his shepherding of scientific projects and programs. Andrew's work was recognized by a number of honors, including the California Scientist of the Year Award (2003), the Balzan Prize (2006), and the Dan David Prize (2009). Andrew is survived by Frances, and their sons James, William, and Joseph.

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