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James Houck (1940–2015)

Published onDec 01, 2015
James Houck (1940–2015)

James R. Houck, the leading figure in developing infrared spectroscopy for astrophysics, died in Ithaca, NY, on September 18, 2015, at age 74 from complications of Alzheimer's Disease. He was born on October 5, 1940, in Mobile, Alabama, but lived much of his early life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he received his undergraduate degree from Carnegie Institute of Technology. Jim spent his scientific career at Cornell University. He came to Cornell as a physics graduate student in 1962 and remained until his retirement as the Kenneth A. Wallace Professor of Astronomy in 2012. His only year away from Ithaca was as a Guggenheim Fellow at Caltech, and he declined job offers from other universities because of his opinion that Ithaca provided the best environment for raising his family. His passion for learning, doing, and teaching science by building instruments and understanding physics led to great benefits for his students and astronomy colleagues.

After receiving his PhD in condensed matter physics, he changed fields to work in astronomy at Cornell. He first collaborated with colleague Martin Harwit to develop a rocket program at Cornell for infrared observations and made numerous treks to the White Sands Missile Range flying payloads on Aerobee sounding rockets. Jim emphasized building spectrographs and making pioneering observations with ground based, airborne, and rocket-borne infrared instrumentation. Jim flew on every airplane NASA provided for astronomy. Those were pioneering times. One of his survival stories was of the Learjet in which both engines flamed out over the Pacific when the pilot did a celebratory barrel role after successful completion of their observations. His observations with rockets and airplanes were primarily of a variety of Galactic objects, including planetary nebulae, HII regions, and stars. But the most notable was an observation on the Convair 990 that produced a prescient discovery paper in 1973 led by Jim which discovered bound water on Mars from infrared absorption at 2.85 microns. The analysis that "this bound water comprises about one percent by weight of the surface material" was confirmed forty years later when the Mars Rover Curiosity determined water content by vaporizing Martian soil.

Jim was a crucial participant in NASA's first major infrared space mission, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), especially because of his detector expertise which solved a major focal plane problem for the mission. His archive contains a napkin from a British pub on which he sketched a wiring diagram to show his colleagues how to save the 25 micron detector array. Once the results began from IRAS, Jim's scientific interests moved to extragalactic astronomy. He was a major participant in two of the most significant discoveries from IRAS, announced in 1984: an extended population of optically faint, infrared bright galaxies, and the presence of galaxies with exceptional infrared luminosities (now known as the Ultraluminous Infrared Galaxies, ULIRGs).

After the great success of IRAS, NASA begin planning a major infrared mission, first labeled "Shuttle Infrared Telescope Facility" but soon becoming the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF), and now operating as the Spitzer Space Telescope. Although hundreds contributed, Jim was among the few individuals who contributed most to the success of Spitzer. His colleagues acknowledged this by awarding him both the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal in 2005 and the American Astronomical Society's 2008 Joseph Weber Award for Astronomical Instrumentation, with the citation stating, "It is no exaggeration to say that without Dr. Houck's contributions, modern IR astronomy would never have reached its current level of maturity."

Jim was the Principal Investigator for the infrared spectrograph on Spitzer (IRS), initially chosen for the original SIRTF mission. Jim became the vital infrared representative on the review panel setting astronomy's priorities for the 1990s (the "Bahcall Report"), and his persuasive advocacy convinced the panel that SIRTF should be the decade's highest priority. Subsequently, Jim chaired the NASA HQ Astrophysics Advisory Committee and played a crucial role in organizing and participating in legislative advocacy for the SIRTF "new start" that was needed. Jim's extraordinary technical expertise was vital to the essential redesign of SIRTF required to meet NASA targets for the mission cost.

Following the success of IRAS, SIRTF was intended primarily as a photometric mission. Jim was the advocate for spectroscopy which subsequently turned out to be the instrument in greatest demand for the cryogenic Spitzer mission.

Jim's first scientific paper with the IRS in 2005 announced the presence of a large population of quasars in the early universe so heavily obscured by dust that they had been invisible to optical telescopes. The legacy of the Spitzer IRS is now permanently in place as the "Cornell Atlas of Spitzer IRS Sources" (CASSIS at, providing an easily accessible archive of mid-infrared spectra (5-37 micron) for everything from outer planet satellites to quasars at the edge of the observable universe. CASSIS will be the fundamental reference archive of mid-infrared spectra for the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.

During all these years of major research projects, Jim maintained a consistent dedication to high quality undergraduate teaching, simultaneously with advising numerous PhD students. His most notable legacy for undergraduates at Cornell was his development by 1974 of a research quality telescope close to campus to teach instrumentation and observational techniques. The 25 inch telescope of the Hartung-Boothroyd Observatory not only trained Cornell students for decades, but was also a testbed for spectrographs. What students felt about Jim was summarized by a former undergraduate who told us, "It is no stretch whatsoever to say that I would not be anything close to what I am today had I not run into Jim in my first Cornell Astro course." To improve Cornell's access to ground based observing, Jim also initiated a partnership with Caltech in the Hale 5 m telescope and led development of Cornell instruments for that facility.

The sad aspect of Jim's accomplishments was the distraction from his celebration of the IRS success by the long term care he gave to his beloved wife Elaine. They married in 1965, and Elaine became partially disabled a few years before the Spitzer launch. Jim assembled an extraordinary team to assure the success of the IRS, frequently making grueling trips from Ithaca to Pasadena and hurrying home to care for Elaine, who died in 2011. This combination of dedicated personal affection and incredible talent as an astrophysicist summarizes the uniqueness of James R. Houck. He is survived by his sons, Chris and Robert, and by four grandchildren.

Photo credit: Anahit Samsonyan, May 2013


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