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Kenneth Michael Merrill (1947–2012)

Published onDec 01, 2012
Kenneth Michael Merrill (1947–2012)

Kenneth Michael Merrill, a member of the scientific staff of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), passed away from heart failure after surgery in Tucson, Arizona, on March 31, 2012. He was a leading developer of near-infrared and mid-infrared instrumentation, a pioneer in using these instruments to produce astrophysical results, and a catalyst for the growth of near-Infrared observing capabilities at NOAO. He helped train generations of astronomers in the techniques of infrared imaging and spectroscopy and had a profoundly positive impact on the spirit and character of the National Observatory. He was a generous colleague, mentor, and valued member of NOAO. He was a loving and admired husband, father, and grandfather for his family.

Born in Ferndale, Michigan, to Betty Marie Altman and Kenneth Lee Merrill, Mike grew up in Jamestown, North Dakota, developing a lifetime interest in astronomy at an early age. A 1969 summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and Sigma Pi Sigma graduate of the University of Denver with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics, Mike went to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), for graduate school, earning his doctorate in 1976.

During his time at UCSD and his subsequent tenure at the University of Minnesota in the late 1970s, Mike was a leading participant in the birth of astronomical infrared (IR) spectroscopy. He helped develop and deploy innovative IR spectrographs at several observatories. Working with a who’s who of early infrared astronomy, including Wayne Stein, Fred Gillett, Bill Forrest, Tom Soifer, Ed Ney, Eric Becklin, Nick Woolf, Bob Gehrz, and John Hackwell, Mike was active in the initial near-IR reconnaissance of planets, stars, and galaxies.

Scientists who worked with Mike in those early years of near-IR astronomy valued his unique combination of knowledge, scientific integrity, modesty, willingness to work hard, kindness, friendly personality, and an apparently limitless reservoir of good humor. Both Tom Soifer and Bill Forrest credit Mike, along with Fred Gillett, with getting 2- to 5-micron spectroscopy on the map.

Tom Soifer, currently Director of the Spitzer Science Center and Chair of the division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy at Caltech, first met Mike when Mike was still in graduate school and Tom was a new post-doctoral fellow at UCSD. Tom says Mike “taught me the ropes of this new trade” of near-IR spectroscopy. Mike was the one who could make the new infrared filter wheel spectrograph at the UCSD-University of Minnesota telescope on Mt. Lemmon work.

As Bill Forrest remembers, “Fred Gillett had built a spectrometer, with a doped Silicon photoconductor detector. Because of the low background, this system was very sensitive. However, with the well-known problems of photoconductors at low backgrounds, the data couldn’t be calibrated. Mike helped implement the InSb photovoltaic detector, pioneered by Don Hall, in this spectrometer,” and discoveries quickly followed. As Tom Soifer recounts, one of these results occurred when Mike, Tom, and Ray Russell observed the galaxy NGC 7027 and published, in a paper led by Mike, the first detection of the 3.3-micron near-IR emission feature from another galaxy, emission now known to be produced by polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that are a ubiquitous component of organic matter in space. This was just one of many pioneering results in which Mike played a major role.

In December of 1979, Mike brought his skills and good humor to the National Observatory, joining the staff of Kitt Peak National Observatory, which now is part of NOAO. During the next 33 years, Mike was the consummate supporter of the mission of NOAO, enabling world-class astrophysical research by astronomers awarded their observing time based on the merit of their ideas. Mike was a key member of the teams that deployed several generations of innovative near-IR instruments used by the astronomy community for world-leading research. These instruments included:

  • COB, the Cryogenic Optical Bench,

  • DLIRIM (Diffraction Limited Infrared Imager), COB used in a fast-exposure, shift-and-add mode that produced diffraction-limited images with the Mayall 4-m telescope,

  • SQIID, the Simultaneous Quad Infrared Imaging Device, a multi-detector near-infrared imager used at both the 2.1-m and the Mayall 4-m telescopes, and the first instrument to use cyrocoolers that are now in near-universal use,

  • The Phoenix, a high-resolution near-infrared spectrograph, and

  • NEWFIRM, the NOAO Extremely Wide Field Infrared Mosaic imager.

In addition to conceiving, developing, and deploying innovative near-IR and mid-IR instrumentation, Mike was committed to making them scientifically productive. He often taught by example that an instrument had not been successfully commissioned until it was producing science. After SQIID was brought to the telescope, Mike saw its users having difficulty dealing with the abundance of raw data the instrument was producing. He increased the scientific productivity of the community using SQIID by producing easy-to-use, well-documented, software reduction tools derived from his own profound understanding of the interactions between instrument, telescope, and sky. SQIID became an instrument of great scientific productivity.

During his NOAO career, Mike also played a major role in near-IR detector array development, observatory site characterization, telescope operations, and observatory management. Working with Al Fowler, Ian Gatley, Arne Henden, Fred Vrba, Bill Ball, C. McCreight, and others at Raytheon, the US Naval Observatory, and NOAO, Mike was deeply involved in the development and successful deployment of the Advanced Large Area Detector Developments in InSb (ALADDIN) IR arrays for astronomical use. As an observatory manager, he wisely served as the Supervisor of KPNO Mountain Science Support for the last seven years. Buell Jannuzi remembers that his first and best decision as Director of KPNO was to appoint Mike to that position.

While his contributions to astronomy and the astronomy community were important, those of us who had the opportunity to work with Mike value most the positive impacts he had on our own lives and our organization. Throughout his tenure at NOAO, Mike was renowned for his integrity, professionalism, empathy, equanimity, and caring for his colleagues and coworkers. His colleagues at NOAO will miss him greatly, but are grateful that the family Mike loved so very much shared him with us for so long.

Mike Merrill is survived by his wife of 33 years, Boosik; his children, David, Nathaniel, and Christabelle; his grandchildren, James and Daniel; and his sister Cathy.

Photo by Pete Marenfeld AURA/NOAO

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