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David D. Cudaback (1929–2006)

Published onDec 01, 2014
David D. Cudaback (1929–2006)

David Dill Cudaback, an astronomer who put so much energy into his teaching that his students at the University of California, Berkeley, named a laboratory after him, died in his Oakland home July 23, 2006, after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 77.

Cudaback was born Jan. 18, 1929, and raised in Napa, California. He was the first student from Napa to win a national Westinghouse Science Foundation Scholarship.

He earned his undergraduate degree in physics, from University of California Berkeley in 1951. After a year at Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, he returned to Berkeley to pursue graduate studies, earning a Ph.D. in astronomy in 1962. His thesis dealt with thermal emission from the Moon at microwave wavelengths and led to the conclusion that there must be a considerable layer of dust on the surface of the Moon. The lunar landings years later confirmed that result.

His early research involved sub-millimeter studies of the Orion Nebula and other star forming regions as well as of the planets. The discovery of OH emission at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory led to his participation in studies of OH emission in point sources and surveys of dust clouds for OH emission. He also worked in the infrared studying the spectra of extremely red stars to find evidence of interstellar ice grains.

The Crab Nebula was observed at 1420 MHz by Cudaback but more exciting results came from his optical timing measurements of the pulsar in the nebula that indicated a deviation from the slowdown predicted from a simple rotational decay law.

Cudaback also carried out studies at White Mountain Research Station (14000+ feet elevation) on the effects of high altitude on the performance and health of researchers, important findings for the future Keck Telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Cudaback was known to decades of astronomy students for his enthusiasm and eagerness to share the wonders of astronomy. In the 1980s, he developed a hands-on laboratory course at UC Berkeley to teach the fundamentals of observational radio astronomy. The course won an Educational Initiatives Award from the campus in 1995. A plaque mounted outside that teaching lab, the David D. Cudaback Undergraduate Astronomy Laboratory, reads, "A candle loses none of its flame in lighting another candle." He was awarded the Noyce Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, in 1994 and continued to teach for many years after his official retirement.

Cudaback's passion for astronomy led to a collaboration with the late artist Richard O'Hanlon, a former UC Berkeley professor of art, on three sculptures incorporating planes and angles with astronomical significance. The most visible of the three, is Sunstones II, a 15-foot, 16-ton granite sculpture installed in 1979 outside UC Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science. Sight lines Cudaback incorporated in O'Hanlon's piece allow visitors to see seasonal events such as the northern- and southern-most setting of the sun at the solstices; the northern- and southern-most setting of the moon in its 18-year cycle; and the northern and southern-most settings of the planets in a cycle spanning tens of thousands of years.

Cudaback was an active and devoted member of the Sierra Club, and he met his future wife in 1952 at a dance at the Donner Summit Sierra Club ski lodge. He also was a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences and of Oakland's Chabot Space & Science Center. Among his other passions were flying and mountain sports, such as skiing and climbing.

He is survived by his wife, Dorothea "Dot" Cudaback of Oakland; and daughter, Cynthia, of Raleigh, N.C. He had one grandson.

Photo courtesy of the University of California, Berkeley.

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