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Gordon Webb Wares (1911–1996)

Published onSep 01, 1996
Gordon Webb Wares (1911–1996)

Gordon Wares was born in Tynescastle, Sask., Canada on 10 February 1911. An American citizen, he graduated from the University of Washington, Seattle, in 1933, studied for three years at Berkeley, and then transferred to the Yerkes Observatory where he completed his PhD under Chandrasekhar in 1940. He taught at Brenau College (1939-1941) and at Milwaukee State Teachers College (1941-1942) when he enlisted in the Army Air Force. In 1944 he was discharged for work as physicist and head of the computing section at what is now the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley. He then worked at the Naval Ordnance Testing Station at China Lake, CA until 1951 when he became chief of the astronomy and astrophysics branch of the Geophysics Research Directorate, Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory, Bedford, Mass, where he remained until retirement. Gordon Wares was married in 1936. He and his wife Mabel had four children, John, Paul, Vincent and Elizabeth.

Although Gordon's thesis work was purely theoretical, on the constitution of stars at the verge of degeneracy, he was happier with experimental and observational astrophysics. He experimented with shock tubes to create, for a brief time, a volume of gas at known high temperature and density, and, using the Saha-Boltzmann equations, he used observed line intensities to obtain atomic transition probabilities (A values), essential quantities for the interpretation of stellar spectra. In the 1960s Wares did photographic spectrophotometry of 30 Doradus and other HII regions in the Magellanic Clouds. He also studied the remarkable nova-like variable RR Telescopii which has proven to be such a bonanza for the development of plasma diagnostics for nebulae and combination variables. Wares could have accomplished much more had he not been burdened with heavy administrative chores. How familiar!

Everyone who worked with Gordon Wares quickly realized he was a perfectionist. Not surprisingly, sometimes he became a bit distracted by minor details and side issues. Probably he worked best with a gung-ho partner who was eager to get to the punch line and who benefited greatly from Gordon's meticulous attention to the fine details. Gordon was a caring, compassionate human being who was keenly aware of the needs of others and who often put their welfare ahead of his own. When I graduated from Berkeley sixty years ago, my eyes went bad, suddenly and inexplicably. Prof. Leuschner, my mentor, sent me to a doctor and thought the matter solved. Even though my condition did not improve, Leuschner decided that my performance was poor so I was to be purged. Gordon defended me, convincing Leuschner that my eyes were worse than ever. I was spared the axe. Meanwhile, Gordon's fiancee Mabel worked for a medical researcher who was able to diagnose my problem. Gordon and Mabel saved the career of a poverty stricken astronomy student.

Gordon was an expert photographer. His artistic sense was matched by his technical skill; many of his pictures were true masterpieces. Gordon always carried with him small slips of paper on which he entered information to be filed away for future reference, It seemed that these "ghost stories" as he called them contained data on just about everything that impinged on his life.

Gordon and his wife, whom he called "Peter" because she once played Peter Pan in a play, enjoyed retired life in New England, where they had a Victorian home as well as a cottage near the sea. In 1987 Gordon was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He and Mabel moved to her family home in Petaluma, CA where he died August 26, 1996, at the age of 83.

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