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Kurt W. Weiler (1943–2016)

Published onDec 01, 2018
Kurt W. Weiler (1943–2016)

Kurt Walter Weiler, age 73, passed away at home in Alexandria, Virginia, surrounded by his family on 17 April 2016. He fought a courageous battle against prostate cancer for 24 years. Kurt was born on 16 March 1943 in Phoenix, Arizona, to Henry Carl and Dorothy (Esser) Weiler. He is survived by his beloved wife Geertje (Stoelwinder), his three adopted children Anil, Sanna and Corinn (son in law Chris); mother Dorothy and brother Robert.

After receiving his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Arizona in 1964 and his PhD from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1970, Kurt began his career as a Research Fellow at Caltech. In 1970, he moved to Haren in Groningen, Netherlands, to work for the Netherlands Foundation for Radio Astronomy. Thereafter, he worked for Laboratorio di Radioastronomia in Bologna, Italy, and then the Max Planck Institut für Radio Astronomie in Bonn, Germany. Kurt always loved Europe and its lifestyle, and met his wife Geertje there. After nearly a decade, Kurt returned to the U.S. to work for the National Science Foundation in 1979, and finally at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C., from 1985 to 2012.

Kurt was an internationally known and respected scientist. He had a long and successful career in radio astronomy, which has included many important accomplishments, excellence in scientific research and an outstanding track record of mentoring young scientists and engineers. Among his most important accomplishments is as a leader in the discovery of Radio Supernovae (RSNe) and his subsequent large body of exemplary work on this phenomenon.

During his career, Kurt wrote more than 250 publications, served as editor of seven books, was invited to lecture at over 50 meetings and conferences, and holds a patent. Specific areas where Kurt was impactful:

  • Kurt’s pioneering observations of radio emission from supernovae (SNe) helped initiate a new field of study in astrophysics: Radio Supernovae (RSNe). He successfully proposed to study a recently exploded star, SN 1979C, in the galaxy M100 with the new Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope. The synchrotron emission from RSNe is thought to arise from the interaction of the SN shock wave with pre-existing circumstellar matter around the star and therefore provides a probe of the mass loss by the progenitor prior to explosion. Kurt became the research standard-bearer in the community throughout his career for the observations and analysis of RSNe. Other notable RSNe studied by Kurt and his collaborators include SN 1993J in M81 and SN 1994I in M51.

  • Kurt identified a new class of supernova remnants (SNRs), which has since developed into a key area of study for high-energy astrophysics. In his PhD thesis work at Caltech, Kurt recognized that the Galactic radio source 3C58 possessed structure and spectral properties much like the previously “unique” Crab Nebula (the pulsar-driven remnant of a star that exploded in AD1054). Kurt assembled the first catalogue of these objects and coined the new word “plerion” to identify them. Plerion is now an accepted word in the English language and is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). He also identified an additional sub-class known as “Composite SNRs,” containing both a pulsar-driven core and a traditional shock-wave driven supernova shell.

  • Kurt helped pioneer the field of radio astronomy from space and the Moon. Shortly after arriving at NRL in 1986, he started to investigate the possibilities for extending radio astronomy observations with telescopes outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. From initial concepts, he wrote the first-ever proposal to NASA for radio astronomy arrays in space and organized the first-ever conference on the subject in 1986.

  • Kurt helped carry out the first experiment on the general relativistic bending of radio radiation in the gravitational field of the Sun. Shortly after completing his thesis, while a postdoc at Caltech, he participated in the world’s first radio test of the gravitational deflection of “light” around the Sun due to the solar gravitational field.

  • Early in his career, while still a graduate student, Kurt developed unique Fourier Synthesis Imaging capabilities for full polarization imaging. He then applied these techniques to pioneering measurements with the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope during one of his first postdocs in Europe.

  • Kurt wrote and edited review articles and volumes on SNe and gamma-ray burst sources, including an Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics article in 2002.

  • Kurt organized, or contributed to the organization of, well-attended international meetings on SNe and related topics.

Kurt was a leader and mentor of many students and postdocs who are contributing actively to science and technology in the US and the world. Perhaps Kurt’s most lasting contribution to the future of science and technology may be the highly qualified young scientists and engineers he has guided and mentored. These have included many high school students, most of whom have gone on to careers in teaching, engineering, science, or medicine.

Personally, Kurt had a passion for vintage Jaguar automobiles, was an avid skier, and loved to be with family. There was nothing that he could not fix. Those who knew him will miss his sense of humor, guidance, honesty, and warm, loving personality.

Photo: Namir Kassim

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