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Richard Allen White (1946–1999)

Published onDec 01, 2000
Richard Allen White (1946–1999)

Richard A. White, 52, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt MD, died of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) on May 30, 1999, at Sibley Memorial Hospital (Washington, DC) near his home in Bethesda, MD. Richard was born in Marblehead, MA on June 9, 1946, the son of Benjamin M. White and Gertrude Berman White and attended the Putney School in Putney, VT. He received an AB from the University of California, Berkeley and MS (1971) and PhD (1978) degrees from the University of Chicago. Much of his graduate work was carried out at Yerkes Observatory, under the guidance of W.W. Morgan and Patrick Palmer. One of his hobbies in graduate school was breeding canaries and finches. That these had to be cared for while he was away observing came as a considerable shock to fellow graduate students.

One of Richard's scientific passions centered on understanding structure formation in the universe through the study of clusters of galaxies less rich than those in Abell's catalog (≤30 galaxies inside a radius of 2 h75 Mpc). As part of his dissertation, he (together with Morgan, Susan Kayser, and C.E. Albert) compiled the first collection of cD (supergiant) galaxies in poor clusters, identified by visual scanning of Palomar Observatory Sky Survey images. The WP (White-Palomar) catalog of 1977 was among the first such collections of poor clusters, which are far more numerous than richer ones. Their importance in tracing cosmological evolution and large scale structure is only now beginning to be fully appreciated. Richard's early work helped pioneer this aspect of extragalactic astronomy.

As a postdoctoral fellow at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (1977-1980), White collaborated with Jack Burns, Suketu Bhavsar, and Pat Bornmann in creating a new, more extensive catalog of poor clusters of galaxies by applying a computer algorithm (developed by Ed Turner) to Zwicky galaxies. Their definition of poor clusters used a stringent overdensity criterion, later shown to have high reliability and ability to overcome projection effects. White continued to refine this catalog for the next two decades, later in collaboration with Mark Bliton, Mike Ledlow, and Chris Ledlow.

"A Catalog of Nearby Poor Clusters of Galaxies" appeared in the December 1999 issue of Astronomical Journal and was White's last paper as principal author. It represents the most prominent legacy of his scientific career. This Catalog has been the basis for numerous optical, radio, and X-ray observations. Richard participated in observations with the Green Bank 300-foot telescope and the VLA that demonstrated the presence of many more tailed radio sources than had been expected. These are now believed to be a signature of galaxy group mergers and have been seen in numerical simulations. White and his GSFC colleagues conducted early X-ray observations of poor dusters with the Einstein Observatory and, later, with ROSAT and ASCA. The X-ray fluxes they found confirmed the existence of hot intracluster gas, earlier postulated to confine extended radio sources in the clusters. Richard remained active in planning and proposing follow-up observations with Chandra and Newton XMM, designed to differentiate models of metal enrichment of the intracluster gas by supernovae. He was able to remain active in these projects during the extended periods he spent in Houston for medical treatment thanks to the hospitality of Bob O'Dell and the Rice University Astronomy Department.

In addition to his own research, Richard White provided vital support services to the community of users of SMM, COBE, and ROSAT. He was a major contributor to the development of the FITS file formats used in ROSAT, which have evolved to a de facto standard for high energy missions. This involvement led, in turn, to his interest in data preservation and extending the usefulness of archives. He served on the Astrophysics Data Centers Coordination Council, which links the various NASA data centers and on the FITS Standards Committee. He also worked with the earth sciences community as the Project Manager of GLOBE (Global Observations to Benefit the Environment), a visualization project to provide earth sciences data to classrooms through the WWW. At the time of his death, White was working on visualization tools to enhance the usefulness of data and catalogs at NASA's Astronomical Data Center. He joined the AAS early in his graduate career and was elected to the International Astronomical Union in 1997.

Richard's non-astronomical interests including gardening and animals, the Leukemia Society of America, the M.D. Anderson Hospital Network, and informing others about the allogenic bone marrow transplant option for treatment of CLL. He served on the Goddard Committee for People with Disabilities and in a number of organizations supporting museums, nature preserves, and animal protection centers. Survivors include his sister, Judith Lessinger (the donor for his 1993 transplant) and nephew Seth Lessinger, sister Roberta White, and a large network of friends and colleagues from many parts of the country. He was buried in the family plot in Danvers, Massachusetts.

Photo by Jay Friedlander, courtesy of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

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