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R. William Shaw (1904–1995)

Published onSep 01, 1996
R. William Shaw (1904–1995)

R. William Shaw, professor emeritus of astronomy at Cornell and long time chairman of the Astronomy Department, died in Ithaca on 14 March 1995 at the age of 90, after a long siege of crippling arthritis and generally declining health.

Shaw was born 7 July 1904, in Meadville, Pennsylvania. He was raised on a farm and, as a youth, came to know hard work and discipline. His primary education came from a one room school located near the family farm. High school was obtained in town, but his farm chores denied him the advantage of school activities. He graduated from Allegheny College in 1926 (serving as assistant in physics during his last two years) and went on to Purdue for graduate study, earning a Master's degree (1929) under Lark-Horowitz. Shaw was interested in spectroscopy, which was not his professor's strong field. Lark-Horowitz recommended that he go to Cornell to study molecular spectroscopy under R. C. Gibbs, and there he received his PhD in 1934 after he had been appointed an instructor in the Cornell Physics Department, teaching laboratory spectroscopy. In 1937 he was appointed instructor in astronomy under S. L. Boothroyd, rising to full professor in 1951. At Boothroyd's retirement in 1942, Shaw became chairman and director of the Fuertes Observatory and served in this capacity until 1959 when the department expanded. He retired in 1970.

In the late 1930s, Shaw tried to establish an observatory in Arizona. He participated in the Cornell Ultra-violet Star Light Expedition to the San Francisco Peaks. He and R. Williams hoped to test, through photographing stellar spectra, the relative efficiency of new evaporative coatings of an aluminum-chromium alloy for telescope mirrors. The expedition was a distinct success; their coating allowed for greater penetration into the ultra-violet compared with silver, and competed for a time with John Strong's techniques of pure evaporative aluminum.

During this period (1935 to 1940) Shaw was a visiting professor during the summers at Arizona State College and initiated a plan to build a 24-inch reflector for an Arizona site. The mirror was ground and polished in Ithaca and some mechanical work done, but war intervened and the project was put on hold. It was finally completed by other hands and mounted in the Hartung-Boothroyd observatory on Mt. Pleasant, east of Ithaca. It is used primarily for instruction.

Although Shaw worked on molecular spectra and participated in astronomical research, his strong suit was teaching. He was a lecturer at the NSF Summer Institutes for science teachers at Cornell from 1956 to 1958 and directed the Institute of Earth and Space Science from 1959 to 1970. Under Shaw the Astronomy Department was never more than three people, and their primary duty was to teach. During World War II the department gave navigational instruction, and for decades Shaw was the navigational instructor in the Ithaca Power Squadron. Shaw and Boothroyd also prepared a laboratory manual which went through five editions after Boothroyd's death. Shaw contributed to the World Book Encyclopedia and wrote numerous articles for professional scientific journals. He never was interested in theoretical speculation in modem astrophysics nor was he enthusiastic about the space program, though he admired some of its accomplishments. He was a member of the AAS and IAU as well as the APS and the American Optical Society.

Shaw was a very private person, rather serious and formal in demeanor. He was committed to his teaching and it was done well if not exuberantly. He was devoted to his home and family, which included three sons all of whom graduated from Cornell. His last years of confinement to his home were rather lonely, his wife of fifty years, Charlotte, his first graduate student, having preceded him in death by a few years. Shaw will not be remembered for his researches but he will long be respected for his teaching and for the wonder and love of the subject he engendered in his many students.


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