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Barney J. Conrath (1935–2014)

Published onDec 01, 2014
Barney J. Conrath (1935–2014)

Dr. Barney Conrath passed away peacefully in his sleep on 23 April 2014, at his home in Charlottesville, Virginia, after a bout with cancer. He is survived by his wife, Marjorie, three children, and five grandchildren.

He was born 23 June 1935 in Quincy, Illinois and grew up near Hannibal, Missouri. In 1957 he graduated from Culver-Stockton College in northeast Missouri with a BA in Physics, then earned an MA in Physics at the University of Iowa under the direction of James Van Allen. In July 1960, Barney joined the staff of NASA's new Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where he would spend most of his professional career. However, Goddard was not ready to accommodate him, since the Center's buildings were still under construction. Goddard's scientists and engineers were housed in temporary quarters scattered over greater Washington, D.C., and Barney spent nearly two years working at the US Naval Receiving Station in the Anacostia section of the city. Later, he won a Robert Goddard Fellowship and took a leave to earn a PhD in Physics at the University of New Hampshire in 1966, his dissertation being on the violation of the 2nd and 3rd adiabatic invariants by hydromagnetic waves.

Fortunately for atmospheric science, Barney fell in with the wrong crowd at Goddard, and his career in space plasma physics was short lived. The atmosphere at the Center in its early days was charged with excitement: Earth-orbiting satellites were being launched at a regular rate and Goddard was supplying many of the experiments. Barney's group was heavily involved with the Tiros and Nimbus weather satellites, which, respectively, had radiometers and spectrometers to measure the thermal radiation field of Earth's atmosphere. This was a new area of exploration, and techniques were needed to interpret the observed radiation and derive physical atmospheric parameters, e.g., the distributions of temperatures, clouds, and gaseous constituents. Beginning in the mid 1960s, Barney contributed a series of seminal studies on the inversion of planetary infrared spectra observed from space-borne platforms, which was to occupy much of his career.

The course of Barney's work was strongly influenced by his close association with Rudolf Hanel, who built a series of Infrared Interferometer Spectrometers (IRIS) that were onboard the Nimbus satellites, and then on spacecraft that went to Mars (Mariner 9) and the outer planets (Voyager 1 & 2). Barney was a co-investigator on all these experiments and became the Voyager IRIS principal investigator in 1986. Early on, Barney appreciated the value—and sheer enjoyment—of combining the activities of data acquisition and spectral inversion with detailed theoretical modeling of the results. His passion became understanding the atmospheric thermal structure and dynamics of the bodies he observed. Using terrestrial analogies to interpret data from strange worlds is usually a reasonable starting point, but sometimes one's mind needs to be nimble. This was true of the hydrogen-dominated atmospheres in the outer solar system, where Barney and his colleagues discovered that conversion between the ortho and para forms of molecular hydrogen in disequilibrium could be an important energy source driving atmospheric motions.

Barney twice received the NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement (1981, 1990), and he became a Goddard Senior Fellow in 1990. In 1996 he received the DPS Kuiper Prize for his scientific contributions to planetary science. He retired from Federal service in 1995 and became a Senior Research Associate at Cornell University, continuing his close collaboration with Peter Gierasch that had begun during the Voyager IRIS days. During this time, he participated in the Mars Global Surveyor Thermal Emission Spectrometer experiment. He was also a co-investigator on Cassini's Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS), an ambitious Fourier Transform Spectrometer that built on the earlier IRIS instruments. He worked with other CIRS investigators in studying the seasonally varying thermal structure and dynamics of Titan’s stratosphere and the large structural changes effected by Saturn’s great northern storm, which erupted in late 2010. He actively pursued his research until the end, preoccupied with determining the helium abundance of Saturn’s atmosphere—thus far a challenge—by combining CIRS data with radio occultations and with stellar occultations observed by the Cassini Visual Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS).

In his career, Barney led by quiet example, and he epitomized unselfish cooperation in research. He was attentive and encouraging. His integrity and competence were unquestioned. Those who knew him well will never forget those qualities, nor will they forget him.

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