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Richard E. Berendzen (1938-2022)

Berendzen was a tireless advocate for public literacy in science, a historian of astronomy, a consummate classroom teacher, a university president, and prolific public lecturer/commentator in space science.

Published onAug 17, 2023
Richard E. Berendzen (1938-2022)

Photo credit: Gail Berendzen

Richard E. Berendzen, astronomer and former president of American University, died on Thursday November 3, 2022. He was 84.

Richard E. Berendzen was born in Walters, Oklahoma, on September 6, 1938, to Earl and June Berendzen (née Florine Adora Harrison). When he was four years old, the family moved to Portland, Oregon, where his father found work in a shipyard as a painter of vessels to be used in WWII. While in Portland, Richard developed asthma and rheumatic fever, and was bed ridden with temperatures above 100 most of the time. After two years in Oregon, on the advice of the family physician, the family moved to Dallas, Texas, where the drier climate eventually cured his respiratory illness.

In Dallas, his father found work in the Berendzen family hardware store. It was in Texas that Richard first became enthralled with the night sky (apparently, light pollution was not a problem in 1944!). After being confined to his Portland bedroom for two years, the starry sky of Texas opened his eyes to the grandeur of the universe.

He entered elementary school in second grade. He was behind in some subjects, so he had to do some catch-up. He studied very hard and soon excelled in every subject, developing a study/work habit that would follow him the rest of his life.

In high school his favorite subjects were geometry and Latin. He was a typical teenager, with a loud hot-rod car, visits to the local hamburger stands (with car hops!) and listening to the pop music of the early ‘50s. After graduation in 1955, he married his high school sweetheart Barbara Edwards, and soon had a daughter, Deborah. Being an excellent student, Richard won a scholarship to Southern Methodist University (SMU). He chose physics as a major because he wanted to study the hardest subject… “the one that most people flunk out of…” Between classes he would study in the special collections reading room in the SMU library, where he discovered the works of Plato, Emerson, and other great thinkers. The message he got from these works was that… “discipline, hard work, and drive” was the recipe for academic excellence. In addition to his class schedule, Richard worked part time at a hardware store and at the Dallas Public Library in order to support his family, typically getting only a few hours of sleep per night.

Apparently, the physics program at SMU was not difficult enough, therefore, he decided that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was the place to be, so that he could, in his words, “compete with the best and brightest students and study with premier scientists…” In 1957 Richard was accepted as a transfer student at MIT and he moved with his wife and daughter to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Cambridge was a culture shock for a teenager from Dallas. MIT then (and now) is not a place where one can coast to a degree. He had to learn a whole new set of social skills and study long hours to compete with his fellow students. Nevertheless, he excelled at MIT, but in the process he lost his family, who after a year, decamped back to Dallas. Richard took a leave of absence from MIT to tend to his marriage but to no avail; he was divorced from Barbara a year later. He finished MIT a year late, in 1960.

Richard was then accepted into the graduate program in astronomy at Harvard University. Harvard offered a different environment from MIT. Berendzen noted: “ I found many professors who stood out not only as scientists but also as enthusiastic and enthralling teachers.” Richard had found his role models in the personages of Leo Goldberg, Donald Menzel, and Owen Gingerich. He took courses from Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and conversed with Harlow Shapley. He could go down to the “Plate Stacks” where decades of astronomical photographs on glass plates are archived, where one could hold a plate taken by Shapley or one analyzed by Henrietta Leavitt. Richard was a teaching assistant for Carl Sagan, a newly minted Harvard professor. Richard said of Sagan, “He showed me that teaching could be fun and that a professor can be imaginative and daring. He threw away the script and wrote his own. This made a lasting impression on me.” Sagan was involved in the early days of the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and inspired Richard to be involved as well.

In this heady environment, it is no wonder that Berendzen became interested in the history of science and the teaching of astronomy. Harvard was also the leading institution for developing new ways to teach physics to high schoolers and undergraduates . Gerald Holton and Fletcher Watson were producing new teaching materials and methods. All of these things inspired Richard’s career.

While at Harvard, he met his future wife Gail Edgar, who was a student at Wheelock College. They were married in 1964 in the Harvard Chapel.

The title of Berendzen’s 950 page Ph.D. dissertation is “On the career development and education of astronomers in the United States”, a non-traditional topic for an Astronomy Ph.D. As such, it was an interdisciplinary Ph.D. awarded in the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1968. His thesis advisor was Fletcher Watson. While finishing up his dissertation, Richard began a teaching job at Boston University’s newly re-constituted Department of Astronomy. He brought the expertise, enthusiasm and innovative teaching techniques he learned while at Harvard with him. Within a year he was a faculty member at Boston University.

Richard taught the introductory astronomy courses for undergraduate non-science majors. The word quickly got around to the students that he was an extraordinary teacher. Enrollments in his AS101-AS102 courses skyrocketed (the Apollo moon landings may have had a role in this as well!). His courses were always over-subscribed, with students sitting on the floor. His teaching style, using humor, personal anecdotes, and mock debates (he would come to class in a robe and a pointy hat when discussing astrology vs astronomy) were both novel and effective. Science literacy and critical thinking were some of the goals at the core of his teaching philosophy.

The Department of Astronomy had moved into newly renovated space on the fifth floor of the (then) College of Liberal Arts in 1967. The space is directly under the Coit Observatory on the roof. The observatory was in disrepair, having been unused for years. Berendzen was instrumental in refurbishing the observatory and putting the two antique refracting telescopes back into service as teaching and public outreach instruments. The observatory has been holding an “open night” for the public once a week since that time.

In addition to the open nights at the observatory, Richard organized, with the help of his wife Gail, who was an elementary school teacher, special “Open Houses” to be held twice yearly for elementary and high school students from the Boston area. They were very well attended, with hundreds of students treated to a lecture (usually given by Richard), science demonstrations, and views through the telescopes on the roof.

While at Boston University, Berendzen’s research centered on the history of astronomy in the 20th century and the methods for teaching astronomy. A grant from the National Science Foundation entitled, “The Case Studies Project on the Development of Modern Astronomy” supported two graduate students whose Ph.D. theses were later incorporated into a book,” Man Discovers the Galaxies,” authors: Richard Berendzen, Richard Hart, and Daniel Seeley (ISBN:0-88202-023-4). This book chronicles, through in-person interviews, and rarely seen archival material, how we found out that the solar system is near the edge of our galaxy and that the Milky Way galaxy is just one of billions of galaxies in the universe.

In November 1972, while at Boston University, Berendzen hosted a symposium funded by NASA entitled: “Life Beyond Earth and the Mind of Man”, where a panel of notable scientists, a philosopher and a theologian discussed the implications of finding extraterrestrial intelligence. Video excerpts from this symposium can be found here.

Richard was acting chairman of the Department of Astronomy 1971-1972. In 1973 Berendzen took a sabbatical, which he spent in Washington D.C. at the National Academy of Sciences and doing research at the Library of Congress. While in Washington, he was recruited to be the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at American University (AU). He would spend the next 17 years in administrative roles at AU, first as Dean, then Provost, and finally (1980-1991) as President of the University. In his words,” I hoped to re-ignite the founders’ original vision and work toward building a great university in the nation’s capital.”

Getting AU back on track required some hard choices: denying tenure to some faculty; down-sizing some departments while expanding others; curbing grade inflation; raising AU’s admission standards; expanding the physical plant; etc. Some of these measures were highly unpopular among the faculty. At one contentious faculty meeting, as Dean, he showed up in a full suit of medieval armor to “defend his actions.” As President of AU, he saw his mission as….” to tap the unique resources of this city and to get to know the power leaders of Washington who can be beneficial to the university.” Some of the improvements he envisioned would require a large infusion of funds. To accomplish this he recruited donors and new members of the Board of Trustees. All of this frenetic activity (he worked ~18 hours a day, 7 days a week) was chronicled in his book, “Is My Armor Straight? A Year in the Life of a University President” (ISBN-10. 0917561015).

By all accounts, he achieved most of the goals he set out for AU years before, e.g., the average SAT scores for incoming students rose by 200 points; the endowment of AU quadrupled during his tenure as President; AU opened another campus; and American University had regained a sense of pride in itself. He did all this while continuing to serve on various NASA panels, local District of Columbia (DC) commissions, and being the “go to person” to comment on the latest astronomical and space science discoveries for the local DC media market.

In April 1991, Berendzen resigned the presidency of American University for reasons detailed in his book, “Come Here” (1993). Being a tenured faculty member of the Physics Department at AU, he returned to teaching Astronomy to undergraduate non-science majors as he had done while at Boston University and when he was Dean at AU years before. His courses were always full, with the students again singing his praises as a teacher. Berendzen retired from teaching in 2006, but continued to be active in community and scientific organizations and public outreach until his death on November 3, 2022.

Berendzen’s contributions to the astronomical and space science community were many. He taught thousands of students in his astronomy courses for non-science majors. In these courses, students learned about astronomers and scientists as people; that science is a process not just a bunch of facts; the difference between science and pseudoscience; and how to use critical thinking when presented with extraordinary claims.

Richard was one of the founding members of the Historical Astronomy Division (HAD) of the AAS. He was a frequent contributor to the Journal of the History of Astronomy (JHA). He was active in the Committee on Education in Astronomy (CEA) and the Task Group for Education in Astronomy (TGEA) of the AAS. He served on boards and committees of the Planetary Society and the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Richard was the director of NASA’s DC area Space Grant Consortium, a program whose goal is to expand opportunities for Americans to understand and participate in NASA's aeronautics and space projects by supporting and enhancing science and engineering education, research and public outreach efforts.

He testified before congressional committees on issues of science education. He received the Glen T. Seaborg Award for "Contributions to the American Public's Interest in Science.” He gave more than 1500 public lectures and interviews on astronomy and space science. Berendzen was a consultant and narrator for the 2011 sci-fi feature film, “Another Earth.” In addition to more than 40 articles in scholarly journals, he authored (or co-authored) several books.

A personal anecdote by Jeff Baumgardner

Richard was my undergraduate advisor, mentor, and sometimes, “Dutch Uncle” while I was at Boston University. I had a summer position as an “undergraduate researcher” and Richard asked me to produce a short biography for George W. Ritchey (of Ritchey-Chretien telescope fame). When I was satisfied with my work, I gave it to him to read. He read the document, went over to his book shelf, and gave me his copy of Strunk and White, “The Elements of Style”… I still have that book!


The author is grateful for the help of Michael Mendillo, David DeVorkin, and Gail Berendzen in the preparation of this memorial.


Man Discovers the Galaxies (with Richard Hart and Daniel Seeley). ISBN:0-88202-023-4

Is My Armor Straight? A Year in the Life of a University President. ISBN:0-917561-01-5

Come Here: A Man Overcomes the Tragic Aftermath of Childhood Sexual Abuse. ISBN:0-679-41777-X

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