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David Stanley Evans (1916–2004)

Published onDec 01, 2005
David Stanley Evans (1916–2004)

David Stanley Evans died on 14 November 2004 in Austin, Texas. He was a noted observational astronomer whose career was divided between South Africa and Texas. He also used the extensive historical collections at the University of Texas to write several books on the history of astronomy.

He was born in Cardiff, Wales on 28 January 1916. David received his BA degree in mathematics in 1937 from Kings College, Cambridge. He became a PhD student at Cambridge Observatory in 1937, and was one of Sir Arthur Eddington's last surviving students. He received his PhD degree in 1941 with a dissertation entitled, "The Formation of the Balmer Series of Hydrogen in Stellar Atmospheres." He was a conscientious objector to war and, thus, spent the war years at Oxford working with physicist Kurt Mendelssohn on medical problems, involving cadavers, relating to the war. During these years, David was scientific editor of "Discovery", and he was editor of "The Observatory".

David left England in 1946 in order to take up the position of Second Assistant at the Radcliffe Observatory, Pretoria, South Africa. He and H. Knox Shaw were the entire staff after R. O. Redman left, and they aluminized and installed the mirrors in the 74-inch telescope. His notable scientific contribution was to use lunar occultations to measure stellar angular diameters during the 1950s. He succeeded in determining the angular diameter of Antares and determined that Arcturus was not circular but had an elliptical shape. The elliptical shape was later shown to be an instrumental artifact, but the utility of using lunar occultations to measure stellar diameters and stellar multiplicity was conclusively demonstrated. T. Gold presented David's paper on lunar occultation angular diameters at the January 1953 meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society. For the rest of his life, David resented Gold's remarks, because he felt that he had been ridiculed.

By 1953, David Evans was Chief Assistant at the Royal Observatory headquartered in Cape Town, South Africa. David had designed and built a Newtonian spectrograph for the 74-inch Radcliffe Telescope with which he measured the first southern galaxy redshifts.

David and his family spent 1965-66 in Austin, Texas, where he was a National Science Foundation Senior Visiting Scientist at the University of Texas and McDonald Observatory. They moved permanently to Austin in 1968 and David became a Professor of Astronomy and Associate Director of McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas at Austin.

At McDonald Observatory, R. E. Nather had devised a high-speed photometer capable of measuring millisecond time-scale changes in brightness and with Brian Warner, he invented "high-speed astronomy". This instrument caused Evans to revive his occultation program and, over the next twenty years, he produced the major part of the angular diameters of late-type stars with his students and collaborators. In addition, David and collaborators used the extensive collections of the University of Texas to write "Herschel at the Cape". David was also involved in observing the occultation of ? Sco by Jupiter in 1972 and in observing, during a solar eclipse in 1973, the gravitational deflections in the positions of stars whose light passes near to the Sun. The eclipse was observed from Mauritania, and the observations confirmed Einstein's prediction again.

David Evans and his students studied late-type stars that have large star-spots and others that flare. In addition, they studied stars whose lunar occultation observations had revealed them to be double or even more than two stars.

David Evans's major scientific contribution was an application of his stellar angular diameters to deduce the surface brightness of stars with the result that with suitable color indices one could use photometry to deduce the angular diameter of stars. This is applicable to stars which can never be occulted by the Moon, and its application to Cepheid variable stars has yielded their distances. This relation between angular diameters and a V-R color index is called the Barnes-Evans Relation. Tom Barnes gives most of the credit to Evans, but said that David insisted that the authors be listed in alphabetical order. This work was greeted with initial skepticism but it stimulated an enormous amount of interest and has been used to measure distances to 100 Cepheid variable stars in our galaxy. The method gives a distance to one of them, Delta Cephei, that agrees closely with recently measured parallaxes using HST. The Barnes-Evans method yields distances which are accurate to a few percent and is applicable to Cepheids in nearby galaxies.

Before coming to Texas, David Evans had never given a large lecture course at a university, and his efforts met with mixed success especially in introductory classes for freshmen facing a "science requirement." David had considerably more success supervising PhD dissertations. He was supervisor for four. He was promoted to the position of Jack S. Josey Centennial Professor of Astronomy in 1984, which is the position he held until his retirement in 1986. He was awarded the Gill Medal of the Astronomical Society of South Africa in 1988.

David Evans had a remarkable facility for language, especially English. He was an author of eight books including a 1966 edition of "Teach Yourself Astronomy", which was an introduction to astronomy and an inspiration to a number of currently active astronomers. He also loved history, especially of Southern Hemisphere astronomy but also of the McDonald Observatory. In fact, David continued to be very active after retirement and when he died he had completed a book (with Karen Winget) on the eclipse expedition to Mauritania, which is not yet printed.


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