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Louis Berman (1903–1997)

Published onJan 01, 1997
Louis Berman (1903–1997)

AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives,
John Irwin Slide Collection

Louis Berman, astronomer and teacher, was born in London, England on 21 March 1903, the son of George and Jennie Berman, recent immigrants from Lithuania, then part of Russia. When Louis was three, the family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he attended public schools and the University of Minnesota. He earned his AB degree in 1925, his AM in 1927, and published several short papers on his visual double-star measurements, an asteroid orbit, and a comet orbit. With strong recommendations from his astronomy professor at Minnesota, Berman received a Lick Observatory fellowship and spent two years at the University of California, dividing his time between Berkeley and Mount Hamilton. He did a pioneering thesis on spectrophotometry of planetary nebulae, applying the new theoretical ideas of Herman Zanstra and Donald Menzel. In it Berman interpreted data he had taken at the telescope to obtain physical information on abundances, temperatures, densities, and ionization.

Berman received his PhD in 1929 and returned to Minnesota as an instructor at Carleton College. While there, he completed a paper on a spectroscopic binary, based on Lick material. He longed to get back to California and full-time astronomical research. Jobs were hard to find in the Great Depression, and Berman could obtain one only at San Mateo Junior College. In 1935, San Mateo lost half of its students and terminated half its faculty when City College of San Francisco (CCSF) opened, but Berman managed to get a job at the new CCSF. Though these were teaching jobs, he visited Lick on vacations and long weekends as frequently as he could to observe with its telescopes and use its library. Later he also worked at Mount Wilson Observatory and Harvard, using existing spectrograms. Berman applied for a National Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship but never got one. Nevertheless he completed and published two more papers on spectroscopic binaries, a very important paper on R CrB, which he correctly described as a hot carbon star (at a time when the idea of real compositional differences among stars was not widely accepted), and another important, early paper on the velocity distribution of planetary nebulae and their galactic rotation.

Berman became a US citizen in 1932 and married Esther Goldberg of St. Paul in 1934. During World War II, he served as a naval officer, taking flight training as a navigator (he had taught navigation at CCSF earlier). He ended as a radar officer on Guam with the rank of lieutenant commander, when he was mustered out in 1946. He returned to City College of San Francisco and taught there until he reached mandatory retirement age in 1968, and then continued as a lecturer in astronomy at the University of San Francisco for seven more years. Berman retired again in 1972, but kept on teaching part time as an adjunct professor for another six years. He always took his classes on field trips to Lick Observatory.

In 1973, Berman published an excellent astronomy textbook Exploring the Cosmos. It had a strong emphasis on astrophysics and was widely used for nearly 20 years. John C. Evans of Kansas State University joined him as co-author in the second and subsequent editions. During his long life, Berman taught thousands of students, and thousands more learned it through his book. He died following surgery on 31 January 1997 and is survived by his daughter, Susan B. Zimmerman, a faculty member at CCSF.

Small collections of Berman's papers are housed in the Department of Astronomy papers at University of California's Bancroft Library and in the Shane Archives at Lick Observatory.

Photo (available in PDF version): Louis Bennan in 1975 (courtesy Donald Osterbrock. UCO/Lick Observatory.

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