Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

Boris Garfinkel (1904–1999)

Published onDec 01, 2000
Boris Garfinkel (1904–1999)

Boris Garfinkel was born on November 18, 1904 in Rjev, Russia, son of a dentist, Myron and Fanny Garfinkel. At age five his family moved to Moscow where he received his early education in a preparatory school and then a Realschule. In 1918 the family emigrated to Vilno, Poland where Boris attended Gymnasia. He completed his high school education at Erasmus Hall H. S. in Brooklyn when his family moved to the United States.

Garfinkel distinguished himself early on in mathematics, winning the Belden Mathematical Prize for Excellence in Pure Mathematics (Gold Medal) in 1923 from the City College of New York. He graduated from CCNY in 1927 and entered Columbia University, earning an MA there in physics the next year, the same year he gained US citizenship.

Throughout the 1930s, Garfinkel taught mathematics in the secondary schools of Buffalo, New York. He entered Yale in 1940 as a graduate student in astronomy, earning a PhD in 1943 and then spending the next several years as instructor in physics at Yale. In 1946, Garfinkel became a research mathematician at the Ballistic Research Laboratories (BRL), Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, where he rose to become deputy chief of the computing laboratory in 1960 and finally Chief Research Scientist in 1963. In the 1940s and 1950s he held a concurrent appointment as lecturer in theoretical mechanics at the University of Delaware and was an advisor to the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. In 1959 Garfinkel was invited to lecture at the Yale Summer Institute in Dynamical Astronomy, a post-Sputnik outgrowth of a perceived need for expertise in celestial mechanics, where he developed a course in Lagrange-Hamilton-Jacobi mechanics. He continued in this capacity until 1965, and over the same period was designated a research associate in astronomy at Yale. He held a senior post-doctoral research associateship at the National Academy of Sciences in 1963 and 1964, and finally was made visiting professor of astronomy at Yale in 1966, where he remained for the rest of his life as a senior research associate and lecturer (1967-1973), and senior research astronomer (1973).

Garfinkel's specialties included celestial mechanics, analytical dynamics, the calculus of variations and the theory of atmospheric refraction. His doctoral thesis (1943) was on the theory of astronomical refraction and his activities at Aberdeen included developing computational techniques for determining position from radio-Doppler data, and theoretical studies of optimum control involving the performance of aircraft. In the satellite era, Garfinkel contributed to our understanding of orbital motion in the vicinity of oblate planetary bodies, and performed fundamental research of lasting value on the problem of accounting precisely for atmospheric refraction in the analysis of satellite position data. He was recipient of the US Army's Certificate of Achievement for work in celestial mechanics (1957), the R. H. Kent Award at BRL (1959), and finally the Brouwer Award of the Dynamical Astronomy Division of the AAS in 1981.

Garfinkel is remembered warmly by students and colleagues at Yale as a friendly and dedicated man. For several years he lived on campus in the Graduate School and everyone called him "Boris." When Dirk Brouwer died in 1966, the Department started a transformation to increased emphasis on observational and theoretical astrophysics. Those students still devoted to celestial mechanics were guided by the senior research staff, including Gerald Clemence and Boris. Many especially remember Boris as providing critical moral support. "Boris was an intense lecturer," Roy Laubscher recalls, "constantly clasping a short piece of chalk as if in a death grip, all the while punctuating his remarks by rapidly pressing and releasing his thumb from the visible end of the chalk." He was passionate about his mathematics, and, in effect, was impassioned by everything around him, though his intense devotion to his specialty often made his actions and opinions seem oddly but appealingly quaint among the graduate students. In the 1970s, listening to some people debating how the Hubble constant had changed over time, starting at about 500 and then dropping to under 100, Boris became quite concerned, and asked, "Does this mean the universe will soon start collapsing?"

Boris always reminded people that he was a mathematician. On one of the occasions where he threw a party in his apartment, he asked one of the women who was setting the table, "How do you operate a fork?," Myles Standish recalls that a heavy traffic jam on the New Jersey Turnpike stimulated Boris to treat it as a "dynamic situation and certainly one which would not go unanalyzed." He was known to break the ice at parties by walking up to a stranger and asking, "Do you read books?" Though he could appear gruff, he was always very kind to students. Boris administered examinations in Russian for the grad students, who were then required to read research papers in two foreign languages. Wayne Osborn was thankful that Boris asked him to read two articles on familiar subjects in celestial mechanics. Although a number of the faculty played volleyball with the graduate students in the afternoon matches on the court next to the astronomy building, Garfinkel was the only faculty member to show up for beach football. He loved chess, becoming the Maryland chess champion. He could often be found playing competitive chess in his head, completely from memory.

One thing was certain: Boris had a great sense of humor and always loved good-hearted debating with the students. Boris invested in property in Florida. Graduate students were amused when he once asked: "Do you think I should go see it some time?" Eventually he did retire to West Palm Beach, Florida, where he lived until age 94 years, dying in late March 1999.

Compiled from materials provided by Kim Monocchi of the Yale Astronomy Department and recollections from Dorrit Hoffleit, Myles Standish, Wayne Osborn, Roy E. Laubscher, Ken Janes and James Heasley.

Photo (in Orlando, 1980, when he received the Brouwer Award) courtesy of D. Hoffleit

No comments here