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Paul M. Routly (1926–2014)

Published onDec 01, 2014
Paul M. Routly (1926–2014)

Paul McRae Routly - husband, astrophysicist, teacher, father, friend, and life of the party - passed away on May 2, 2014. Congestive heart failure defeated him - but not without a fight. At age 59 he survived a massive stroke that left him permanently disabled. He also survived open heart surgery during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Born on January 4, 1926 in Swarthmore, PA, the youngest son of James Lawrence and Adelaide Routly, Paul was raised in Montreal and displayed an early aptitude for mathematics. In 1947 he earned two degrees from McGill University, in Pure and Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. His scholarship attracted the attention of Astronomy Professor Lyman Spitzer Jr. at Princeton University. Assisted by a generous scholarship, he earned a PhD in Astrophysics there in 1951. His thesis title was “On a Comparison of Interstellar Lines and Components in Neutral Sodium and Singly Ionized Calcium.” He liked to tell the story of how at Princeton he once almost ran over a distracted Albert Einstein!

In 1951 he married Angelina Catanese of New Brunswick, NJ, who cared for him until the day he died. The newlyweds moved to Ottawa, where Paul landed a two-year post-doc fellowship in the labs at the Canadian National Research Council. Then another fellowship brought him to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. In 1954, at age 28, Paul switched from research to academia when he accepted a position teaching Astronomy at Pomona College. He later commented “When you teach a student you mold the man’s mind so he can really think, and for me this is more satisfying than working in a lab by yourself on absolute f-values [for spectroscopy].” [American Institute of Physics interview with David DeVorkin in 1990:]

While at Pomona he co-founded the Summer Science Program, an immersion program for gifted high school students at the Thatcher School in Ojai, California. He described his summers at SSP as the highlight of a teaching career that also included stints at Rutgers University, University of Maryland, Montgomery College, and the Smithsonian Institution. He earned a reputation as a popular but demanding professor who would fail his students for poor writing – even if they got the math right! In his own words, “Either you write the damn thing correctly or I’ll flunk you” [AIP interview]. But Paul could also speak more eloquently. Indeed, he had a wonderfully gifted command of both spoken and written English. His students were heard to say, “one of the best teachers I’ve ever had,” and “he made the subject come alive even though I wasn’t a science major.”

Paul left Pomona in 1962 to become the first Executive Director of the American Astronomical Society, when Lyman Spitzer was its president, and remained there until 1968. His projects included the Visiting Astronomers program, and involvement in the production of Astronomy documentary movies. Also during that time he co-authored “Galactic Astronomy” with Dimitri Mihalas, which was based on the latter’s lecture notes at Princeton. His experience at AAS later enabled him to assist David DeVorkin in writing about AAS history (see below).

In 1968 Paul became the Director of the Astrometry and Astrophysics Division (which in 1976 became the “Exploratory Development Staff”) of the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, DC. In this position he was the administrative head of several important USNO research programs over the next 14 years. The trigonometric parallax and proper motion program used photographic plates taken with the 61-inch astrometric reflector at the Flagstaff, AZ station, which were then measured in Washington using the automatic measuring machines called SAMM and Starscan. The visual and photographic double star programs used the 26-inch Alvan Clark refractor in Washington. The solar system objects program provided observations of planets, moons, asteroids, and comets, using the 61-inch in Flagstaff as well as the 15-inch astrograph in Washington. Especially notable was the discovery in 1978 by James W. Christy of Charon, the large moon of Pluto. The twin 8-inch astrograph in Washington was used to obtain photographic plates of the entire northern sky down to -18 degrees, eventually resulting in the Twin Astrographic Catalog (TAC) of 705,099 star positions derived from Starscan measurements. In sum, an enormous amount of basic astrometric data was provided to the astronomical community via the research programs supervised by Paul Routly. His colleagues described him: “high standards”; “personable”; “articulate”; “a stickler about writing”; “thorough”; “protective of his team”; “delightful conversationalist”! After a reorganization in 1982, Paul became an assistant to the Scientific Director until he suffered his stroke in 1986, when he was given a disability retirement.

Paul was an active member of the International Astronomical Union, participating in several commissions: Commission 46 - Astronomy Education and Development; Commission 38 - Exchange of Astronomers (serving as president from 1973 to 1976); Division C - Education, Outreach, and Heritage; Division XII - Union-wide Activities.

After some time in rehabilitation from his stroke, and despite his disability, Paul volunteered at the National Air and Space Museum for many years, performing invaluable research assistance on numerous projects dealing with the history of space astronomy, the history of the American Astronomical Society, and the professional development of American astronomers. He co-authored a paper with David DeVorkin on “The Modern Society: Changes in Demographics” for the AAS history, The American Astronomical Society’s First Century (American Institute of Physics, 1999).

In 2009 Paul and Angie moved to a retirement community, Ingleside at King Farm, in Rockville, MD. With his quick wit and wicked sense of humor, Paul made many new friends. His final years were among his happiest. He is survived by his wife, Angie, and daughter, Paula (another daughter, Pam, died in June, 2014, a few weeks after Paul’s death).

Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Naval Observatory Library

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