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Nicholas Sanduleak (1933–1990)

Published onSep 01, 1991
Nicholas Sanduleak (1933–1990)

John Irwin Slide Collection

AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Nicholas Sanduleak died of cardiac arrest on May 7, 1990, enroute to check in to a hospital for angina study. His death was the culmination of a decade-long history of heart trouble that began with a heart attack. Fortunately he did not suffer serious inconvenience after the initial attack until his final two years.

Sanduleak (the name is pronounced Sandoolik) was born on June 22, 1933, in Lackawanna, N.Y., of Rumanian-born parents. The family lived for a time in New York, but soon came to Cleveland, where his mother during his childhood worked as a waitress and his father washed windows of tall buildings. Nick attended Case Institute of Technology, obtaining a B.S. in physics in 1956. Then came Army service at Huntsville, Ala., following which he returned to Case in 1959 as a graduate student in astronomy. It was thus that I first knew him; I taught several of the graduate and undergraduate courses that he subsequently took. He received an M.S. in astronomy in 1961 and the Ph.D. in 1965, in both cases Victor Blanco being the thesis advisor.

Sanduleak's Ph.D. thesis generated considerable interest in the astronomical community because he had concluded that the local space density of M-type dwarfs is higher than previously believed by a factor of more than two. For some time, follow-up work (e.g., Murray and Sanduleak 1972) appeared to support the higher space density; nevertheless it eventually appeared that the high density was largely an artifact of photometric errors. There also appears to be a thick-disk population of M giants with a large scale height (Stephenson 1986), which were assumed mostly to be dwarfs in the earlier analysis but are not so numerous as to have made a large difference.

Following three years as staff member at Kitt Peak and Cerro Tololo Observatories, Sanduleak joined the Warner and Swasey Observatory in 1967 as research associate, a position that he retained for the rest of his life.

Sanduleak's prodigious research output — more than 120 published papers — was built almost entirely around objective prism spectroscopy. Early in his career he worked on the Magellanic Clouds, becoming I believe the first person to deduce metallicity differences between the two Clouds (from spectra of planetary nebulae). His interest in the Clouds continued throughout his life and at one point he published the list containing the star Sanduleak -69°202, destined to become supernova 1987a: the first supernova ever to have spectroscopic information about it known prior to its explosion. He was co-author of a list of Hα-emission stars containing the peculiar object still referred to as SS 433.

Sanduleak collaborated on a number of very large objective prism surveys, which required years for the photography, plate searching, and data publication. An early one, done with me, extended the Case-Hamburg northern Milky Way survey to the southern Milky Way, generating a list of 5000 Luminous Stars in the Southern Milky Way. During the last decade of his life he collaborated with Peter Pesch on "The Case Low Dispersion Northern Sky Survey", a search for interesting, mostly faint spectra of stars and galaxies at high galactic latitudes; paper XII of the series was in process when Sanduleak died.

Sanduleak authored or co-authored dozens of papers on a large number of spectroscopically interesting individual objects: emission-line objects, variable stars, an occasional quasar, and much else. He was co-discoverer of almost half of all the symbiotic stars now known. He also published lists of important classes of objects, such as planetary nebulae and blue horizontal-branch stars in globular clusters.

Probably only some of his friends know that, for well over the last decade of his life, Sanduleak was interested in debunking pseudo-science and claims for the paranormal. He was an avid reader of The Skeptical Inquirer, the journal of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), and was co-founder of a Cleveland chapter of the Committee. He once published an article, "The Moon is Acquitted of Murder in Cleveland", in The Skeptical Inquirer, debunking a book that had claimed that Cleveland homicide statistics show a correlation with full moons. For this purpose he obtained ten years or so of data from the county coroner's office, a chore that was facilitated by the fact that the coroner's office is just across the street from Sanduleak's parking lot. He often (as have I) assisted CSICOP in providing astronomical alternatives to paranormal explanations for UFO sightings. Once he provided the astronomy seminar room as a test area for a local psychic to try to show his stuff to James Randi, the magician and active CSICOP member (the psychic failed egregiously). Once Sanduleak, Randi, and astronomer Steve Shore went to Columbus, Ohio to investigate a claim, abetted by a Columbus news photographer, that a Columbus teen-ager could perform spectacular acts of psychokinesis (she was caught on videotape cheating).

Sanduleak had a keen sense of humor and was a master of the bon mot. The world of astronomy, the world of CSICOP, and his friends are the poorer because of his untimely death. He is survived by his mother, his sister, and his ex-wife.


Murray, C. A 1972, MNRAS 157, 273.

Stephenson, C. B. 1986, ApJ 301, 927.

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