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John Allen Eddy (1931–2009)

Published onDec 01, 2011
John Allen Eddy (1931–2009)

Jack Eddy, who was born 25 March 1931 in Pawnee City in southeastern Nebraska, died after a long battle with cancer in Tucson, Arizona, on 10 June 2009. Best known for his work on the long-term instability of the sun, described in a landmark paper in Science titled “The Maunder Minimum,” he also deserves recognition as one of the triumvirate who founded the Historical Astronomy Division of the AAS.

His father ran a cooperative farm store where Jack worked as a teenager; his parents were of modest means and there were concerns whether he could afford college, but one of the state senators, also from Pawnee City, nominated him for the U.S. Naval Academy. A course in celestial navigation gave him a love of the sky. After graduation in 1953, he served four years on aircraft carriers in the Pacific during the Korean War and then as a navigator and operations officer on a destroyer in the Persian Gulf. In 1957, he left the Navy and entered graduate school at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where in 1962 he received a Ph.D. in astro-geophysics. His thesis, supervised by Gordon Newkirk, dealt with light scattering in the upper atmosphere, based on data from stratospheric balloon flights. He then worked as teacher and researcher at the High Altitude Observatory in Boulder.

Always adventuresome and willing to explore new frontiers, on his own time Eddy examined an Amerindian stone circle in the Big Horn mountains of Wyoming, a so-called medicine wheel, concluding that there were alignments with both the solstitial sun and Aldebaran. His conjectures became a cover story on Science magazine in June of 1974.

In 1971 Jack privately reproduced for his friends a small collection of his own hilarious cartoons titled “Job Opportunities for Out-of-work Astronomers,” with an abstract beginning, “Contrary to popular belief, a PhD in Astronomy/Astrophysics need not be a drawback in locating work in this decade.” For example, under merchandising, a used car salesman advertises, "This Mercury is Hot! Red Shift, Black Body, and a Perfect Radiator.” Ironically, within a few years he was laid off from his HAO position as a result of budget cuts at its parent organization, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). In an interview a quarter of a century later Eddy remarked, “I found out how hard it is for a person with a Ph.D. to get another job at that time, and often wished I didn’t have one, for I was often told, true or not, that I was overqualified for the few jobs that turned up.”

Eddy found a temporary job writing a book for NASA as part of a series on the Skylab spacecraft; the book, The New Sun, was published in 1979. Again, working on his own time, he revived an earlier finding, namely, that between 1645 and 1715 the sun was almost devoid of spots, and he greatly extended the previous work of Gustav Spörer and Walter Maunder by showing during that period a dearth of aurorae and atmospheric carbon-14, a diminution of the solar corona during eclipses, and probably a correlation with cooling of the earth. For onomatopoiec reasons, the rhythm of the m’s, Eddy chose the title “the Maunder Minimum” for the phenomenon, and for his unusually long cover story in the 18 June 1976 issue of Science. The paper was well received, and for a while Eddy was an invited speaker fifty times a year. In 1977, Eddy scored yet again, with his third cover story in Science, a jointly authored paper on solar rotation in the early 17th century.

In 1977–78 Eddy had a fellowship at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, and during that time Ken Brecher and I had a series of conversations with Jack in which we worked out a proposal for a historical astronomy division within the AAS; since I had just been an AAS Councilor, I negotiated with the Society for its actualization, and Eddy became the first HAD president, in 1981–83. He introduced the logo, Dürer’s ancient astronomer, and at the end of his term, the plaque with the motto “Ich bin HAD,” which has been passed on to every subsequent division president. At the IAU meeting in New Delhi, Eddy became president of the IAU Commission 41 on the history of astronomy (1985–88).

While at the CfA Eddy received a tenure offer from the director, George Field. But Eddy’s wife, Marjorie Bratt Eddy, and four children had remained behind, and Jack felt obliged to return to Colorado. With the offer from the Smithsonian Observatory and his considerable fame, HAO and NCAR were eager to rehire him. Eddy soon became increasingly interested in interdisciplinary sciences, turning away from his earlier enthusiasm for the history of astronomy. He became the first chairman of a National Academy of Sciences committee for an International Geosphere-Biosphere Program, which later became the U.S. Global Change Program. Early in 1986, UCAR (the University Corporation for Atmospheric research, which managed NCAR) formalized its response to the challenge of global change with a new Office for Interdisciplinary Earth Studies, which Eddy founded and directed. The office focused efforts to bring the atmospheric sciences and other relevant disciplines together to study the earth's living and inanimate elements as a single system.

In 1987 Eddy received the Arctowski medal from the National Academy of Science, an honor awarded triennially for studies in solar physics and solar terrestrial relationships.

In 1992 Eddy found a new opportunity as chief scientist and vice president of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network, which he described as a federally funded pork barrel project in Michigan. Meanwhile Eddy had divorced; he remarried in 1992 to a fellow worker at UCAR, and he and his new wife, Barbara, relocated to Saginaw, Michigan. After two years he was “extremely frustrated” by the bureaucracy, so he and Barbara struck out on their own, founding the newsletter Consequences (with support from five federal agencies) to explain in popular terms the nature and eventual impacts of environmental changes of all kinds. In 2004 they moved to Tucson, where Eddy worked for NASA at the National Solar Observatory until the time of his death.

Author’s Note: A principal source of information is the interview with John A. Eddy by Spencer Weart on 21 April 1999, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, See also the obituary by Peter Foukal in Physics Today, January 2010, pp. 60-61.


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