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George H. Herbig (1920–2013)

Published onDec 01, 2013
George H. Herbig (1920–2013)

Reprinted with permission from W. M. Keck Observatory.

Photo credit: Karen Teramura

Dr. George H. Herbig, astronomer emeritus at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, has died at the age of 93.

"George was a giant of astronomy and a major Keck user," said Taft Armandroff, Director of the W. M. Keck Observatory. "Over his professional career, he was long associated with Lick Observatory and U.C. Santa Cruz, and finally the University of Hawaii at Manoa. In 1975, he was awarded the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship of the American Astronomical Society and the Bruce Medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in 1980, the highest honor bestowed by each organization."

He has been widely acclaimed for his pioneering studies of star formation and the properties and evolution of young stars. His contributions laid the foundation for much of what we know about the birth and early development of stars.

Dr. Herbig’s work on young stars is so fundamental and comprehensive that he is widely seen as the father of the field of star formation studies. He revolutionized the field by identifying and characterizing the physical features of stars that are so young they did not exist when our earliest human ancestors walked the Earth. He recognized that the T Tauri stars, as they are called, have roughly the same mass as our Sun, but have much stronger versions of many of the Sun’s features, such as magnetic activity, spectral emissions, and lithium content.

Dr. Herbig was influential on the careers of many astronomers, including some of the Keck Observatory Support Astronomer team, including Bob Goodrich and Scott Dahm, and renowned planet hunter Geoff Marcy.

"It was an honor to work with George and learn from such a great astronomer," Goodrich said. "It was always wonderful to see him out here at Keck observing in his later years, knowing that he loved the science so much that he would continue to follow his passion to the end."

"George took me observing at the 120-inch telescope every month for four years," Marcy said. "He patiently taught me spectroscopy and he led me through many projects. Among them were studies of the binary nature of the central stars of planetary nebulae, the hydrogen emission-line variability of T Tauri stars (on the Crossley telescope), Zeeman measurements of Sun-like stars, and the binary frequency of T Tauri stars. For that last project, George urged me to make ever more precise radial velocity measurements of stars. I'm still working on it.

"Most of all, George taught me to work carefully, to double-check all measurements, and to draw physically meaningful interpretations that don't stray too far from the data. George's approach to research influenced all of my work.

"Last year, Dave Soderblom and I visited George, at 92, at his home. He asked about everyone at Santa Cruz and Lick Observatory. Then, he eagerly brought out three or four research papers he was still working on, encouraging us to solve enigmas he found in the spectra."

In addition to his star formation work, Dr. Herbig also designed a search for the higher-mass counterparts of the young T Tauri stars. In a classic paper, he defined and detailed the characteristics of this other, more massive, category of young stars. These are now called Herbig Ae and Be stars in recognition of his pioneering work. He also identified an intriguing subclass of young variable stars called FU Ori stars and co-discovered exotic supersonic flows of gas expelled from newborn stars, now called Herbig-Haro objects.

Dr. Herbig won numerous awards for his work, including the 1975 Henry Norris Russell Lectureship given for “a lifetime of eminence in astronomical research” by the American Astronomical Society and the 1980 Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal awarded by Astronomical Society of the Pacific for “a lifetime of outstanding research in astronomy.” But he was an extremely modest man who did not like to talk about himself and went out of his way to acknowledge the assistance others gave to him.

Dr. George Herbig received his Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley in 1948 and continued his scientific work until nearly the end of his life.

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