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Hugo Schwarz (1953–2006)

Published onDec 01, 2007
Hugo Schwarz (1953–2006)

Hugo Schwarz died in a motorcycle accident on 20 October 2006 near his home in La Serena, Chile. At the time of his death he was a staff astronomer at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory and President of IAU Commission 50 (The Protection of Existing and Potential Observatory Sites).

After Hugo's half-brother Frans died when Hugo was an infant, he effectively grew up as an only child. One consequence was that Hugo became an avid reader. He once estimated that he had read between 3,000 and 4,000 books. He also moved around a great deal. For most of the first seven years of his life, Hugo lived in Venezuela because his father worked for Shell Oil Company. According to Hugo's count, he had a total of 43 different addresses in his life. This gave him experience with different cultures and a facility with several languages. He was fluent in Dutch, German, Spanish, and English, and knew some French. He was very fond of quoting his father's sayings in Dutch and liked to relate stories filled with Chilean-slang to people who understood neither, providing translations that retained the cleverness of the originals.

While on holiday in Scotland in 1974, Hugo decided to enroll in the Glasgow College of Technology, as it was then known. A year later he transferred to the University of Glasgow, where he earned his BSc (1979) and PhD (officially in 1984). From 1982 to 1986 he worked on X-ray detectors for X-ray astronomy at Mullard Space Science Laboratory, south of London.

In 1986 Hugo, his first wife Catriona (Cat), and their two children departed for Chile, where Hugo worked as a staff astronomer for the European Southern Observatory. Over the next nine years he spent over 1,300 nights at La Silla.

A big change occurred in 1995 when Hugo moved to La Palma in the Canary Islands to be Astronomer in Charge of the Nordic Optical Telescope. He was very proud of having organized a team of astronomers and technicians who made the NOT into a valuable research facility with minimal down time.

In October of 2000 Hugo returned to Chile to work at CTIO. After his demonstrated technical, scientific, and social skills drumming the NOT into shape, he was the natural choice to be the CTIO staff member assigned to the 4-m Southern Astrophysical Research (SOAR) Telescope sited at Cerro Pachon. Over the next six years Hugo worked closely with Steve Heathcote and the SOAR technical staff to improve the telescope's operational capacity.

Hugo's scientific work dealt with late stages of stellar evolution, particularly planetary nebulae, and stellar polarimetry. Higher resolution optical and infrared imaging of He 2-104 led to its being known as the Southern Crab Nebula (Schwarz, Aspin, & Lutz, ApJ, L29, p. 344, 1989). Unlike the northern supernova remnant, this southern object (a nebula surrounding a symbiotic binary) looks very much like a crab. Their images of it appeared in magazines and books around the world.

In 1992, along with Romano Corradi (a Ph.D. student of Hugo's) and Jorge Melnick, Schwarz published "A catalogue of narrow band images of planetary nebulae" (A&A, 96, p. 23, 1992). This was the first extensive, and still the largest, CCD image catalogue of PNe.

Hugo edited the conference proceedings of a meeting held in La Serena in January 1992 (Mass Loss on the AGB and Beyond). The talks and published papers strengthened some of Hugo's ideas about the importance of evolution in binary systems, in particular the interaction of compact stellar companions and the formation of accretion disk winds and their precession in the formation of non-symmetrical planetary nebulae. In a highly cited paper, Corradi & Schwarz (A&A, 293, p. 871, 1995) were able to show that bipolar nebulae are produced from higher-mass progenitors than other morphological classes. Hugo knew that you wanted to model PNe in three dimensions, not just in two. He went on to make 3-D photoionization models of PNe with his final PhD student Hektor Monteiro (Schwarz & Monteiro, ApJ, 648, p. 430, 2006).

One of the projects well along at the time of his death was a collaboration with David Spergel and a number of REU summer students on the measurement of the polarization of 2,000 stars evenly distributed around this sky. This simple set of data being obtained with the NOT, a telescope Hugo helped make fully functional, will, by a factor of two, improve the sensitivity of experiments such as WMAP and Planck to the detection of gravity waves, one of the holy grails of experimental physics.

Because of Hugo's sense of humor, enthusiasm, and perspective, he achieved a good balance between work and play. He could play the diplomat and hobnob with politicians and royalty. He also was proud of the fact that his native language, Dutch, is probably the best language for swearing. He often adopted a Glaswegian accent from his time at university, and would ask you a common question of bartenders there: "So, Jimmy, what's yer name?" He loved fine cigars, particularly the flojos (not-so-tightly rolled ones) from his cigar maker in La Palma, which he generously shared with friends. He loved having people over for barbecues, and would often make paella. Which newspaper was used to cover the large pan was important. It had to be left of center politically, but not too far left. On Hugo's fiftieth birthday a temporary addition was built onto the house, carpeting was laid out on the lawn, and there ensued a sit down dinner for 107 people, complete with live musicians, and many broken glasses.

Hugo is survived by his wife Claudia Sanhueza, his two children Tamar and Jouke Schwarz, his step-children Maria Josefina and Diego Gomez, and his half-brother James Schwarz. More than anyone I can think of, he also leaves behind many friends who considered him their best friend.

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