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Kevin H. Prendergast (1929–2004)

Published onDec 01, 2005
Kevin H. Prendergast (1929–2004)

Kevin H. Prendergast, Emeritus Professor of Astronomy at Columbia University, died 8 September 2004 at the age of 75 from complications of lung cancer. He had been at Columbia for more than fifty years.

I first met Kevin in the summer of 1955, during a brief visit to the Yerkes Observatory. I had gotten into a heated discussion about double stars with a fellow graduate student, who suggested that we seek arbitration from a postdoc who was just then passing by. That postdoc was Kevin Prendergast. Kevin went straight to the blackboard, unleashed a learned and insightful lecture on binary stars, and then continued on his way. He wasted no motion, then nor ever, in our long association. Kevin was not at the time particularly concerned with double stars, though he made two significant contributions to their study somewhat after our meeting. The first of these was an early discussion (1960) of the dynamics of gaseous streams in binary systems that made use of theory gleaned from a book on the gulf stream by Henry Stommel (himself a former astronomer). The second was the important suggestion, made with G.R. Burbidge, that X-rays from binary stars are produced when gas from one star falls onto a compact companion (1968).

Kevin was a native of Brooklyn and, after a stint at Brooklyn Technical High School, he attended Columbia University for his undergraduate and graduate studies. He received the PhD in 1954 for an astrometry thesis under Jan Schilt. While attending Columbia, Kevin also studied at the Julliard School of Music, and he became a very accomplished musician. As a pianist, he was about as good as one can get and still be called an amateur, according to my musically knowledgeable friends.

From Columbia, he went to the Yerkes Observatory for postdoctoral work with S. Chandrasekhar and developed an interest in MHD. His model of a magnetic star with a global force-free field holds an important place in the subject of stellar magnetism. The relativistic solution for a magnetized expanding sphere that he later developed has recently been published posthumously through the efforts of Donald Lynden-Bell (MNRAS 359, 725).

By 1956, Kevin was an assistant professor at the University of Chicago and began teaching at the Yerkes Observatory. Norman Lebovitz, who was in one of his classes, has told me that often when the time came for Kevin's afternoon class, the students had to go and roust him out of bed so that he could give his lecture. Around then (1958) he produced another memorable paper, this one on the role of dissipation in the elastic tumbling of asteroids which led to a better understanding of their interesting light curves. This was one of seven papers that he published in the 1954-58 period, of which three were with Chandrasekhar. The productivity increased in 1959 when Kevin began a collaboration with the Burbidges on the determination and interpretation of rotation curves of galaxies. They produced well over twenty papers in the next eight years on this topic.

Kevin spent 1961-62 at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton and 1962-63 at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies on a National Academy Fellowship. He returned to Columbia in 1963 as an associate professor. He was made full professor in 1966 and, when Lo Woltjer left to direct ESO in 1976, Kevin became Chairman of the Department of Astronomy, a position he held on two occasions for a total of seven years.

In 1968, with R.H. Miller, Kevin began developing numerical schemes to study dynamics in disk galaxies. One of their main ideas was to discretize the phase space so as to remove the irreversibility found in many simulations of stellar dynamics. They also developed a gas dynamical procedure (``the beam scheme'') which made clever use of the moments of the discretized kinetic equation. With Kevin's student W.J. Quirk, they put together a simulation with gas and stars, and even introduced a star formation algorithm. They produced films of galactic evolution that were shown quite widely in colloquia and symposia. The films revealed phenomena of qualitative interest such as mergers, bridges, and tails, and the formation of bars. Similar results were also being obtained by Hohl around that time and both pieces of work were no doubt influential in shaping the thinking of people working in this field. One striking feature of the calculations was that spiral arms formed initially but were transient. To keep the spiral patterns from collapsing it seemed necessary to artificially heat the disks. Only later, when the existence of massive halos was recognized (by Ostriker and Peebles), could the true cause of stability be surmised.

From the mid-seventies on, Kevin worked on topics in astrophysical fluid dynamics and applied mathematics, largely with students. Some of this work was published, but it has to be said that much of his best work was not. A good example of the latter is his three-part handwritten manuscript on the dynamics of barred spirals that he distributed to several people over thirty years ago. Many of his other unpublished calculations have been deposited in the Columbia Library, and there are no doubt several things of interest to be found among his papers.

While one can only speculate on why so much of his work went unpublished, I find a remark by de Kooning quite helpful in thinking about it. In a review of book about the painter, Peter Schjeldahl reported that "He [de Kooning] made ...paintings...and destroyed nearly all of them, to his subsequent regret....He explained `I was so modest then that I was vain.'" When I accused Kevin of a similar mindset, he chuckled and said "You are right, but don't tell anyone."

Kevin was widely read and he had a remarkable awareness of literature. He was especially devoted to the work of P.G. Wodehouse. He also loved the Marx Brothers and late in life discovered Zero Mostel of whom he became an instant fan. He was a sailor and a snorkler, and enjoyed trading quips with anyone who was worthy of his steel. He was, in short, a person worth knowing.

Kevin is survived by his wife Jane, two daughters, Laura and Cathy, and a younger brother, Robert, an emeritus professor of medicine from Johns Hopkins who rowed too much.

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