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Richard B. Herr (1936–1997)

Published onDec 01, 1998
Richard B. Herr (1936–1997)

AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives,

John Irwin Slide Collection

Richard Herr, who spent his career at the University of Delaware, died on February 25, 1997, just days before his sixty-first birthday. He was born in Pennsylvania, graduated from Franklin and Marshall College, earned an MS in Physics from the University of Delaware and a PhD from the Case Institute of Technology. He joined the University of Delaware faculty in 1964.

Dick, who enjoyed his nickname, "The First Astronomer in the First State," was one of the pioneers who brought astronomy to Delaware in the early 1960's. He was the first astronomer hired by the University of Delaware, and joined a group of scientists, mostly from DuPont, in installing the telescope at the Mount Cuba Astronomical Observatory and in beginning research there. He introduced the astronomy curriculum at UD. Some courses were standard, but some—including a very popular course on stars and constellations—were quite new.

Dick's friends and students remember him for his marvelous sense of humor. On his last day as a graduate student at Case, he left a large pile of pencil stubs on his desk with a sign, "result of four years of graduate school" One of his students recounts that, for years, they exchanged letters as "Partners in Moon Madness," or PIMM's. On a late October day in one of his classes, he switched blackboards in front of the classroom, only to reveal two students in Halloween costumes who had hidden behind them before the class started. Many of his students, whether or not they took the course that year, remembered the story long afterward. It is still not certain whether he was the creator or receiver of that particular joke—but it was one of his characteristics that he was as good at receiving humor as he was at giving it out.

Flare stars were the subject of most of his research at Mount Cuba. He chose this topic with the interest of his students in mind, since undergraduates would usually find the right target star when they had only one to look for. His ingenuity in developing instrumentation was legendary. He often drew on junk collections, sometimes wedding old and new technologies. He digitized data from ancient strip-chart recordings or centuries-old observations with state-of-the-art scanners. Because he understood the instrument from end to end, he and others could have great confidence in his results.

Dick's conversations with University of Delaware provost John Shirley led him to the notebooks of Thomas Harriot, which contained one of the first sets of sunspot observations, taken from 1611 to 1613. He found that the solar rotation rate was increasing rapidly in the early 17th century, and not just because of the solar cycle (Science 202, 1079; 1978). Harriot's observations are among the very few from before the Maunder Minimum, when sunspots almost completely disappeared. Dick's work in finding and analyzing these observations is a lasting contribution to solar physics.

Herr's intense interest in technology was applied to telescopes and to classrooms. He was the first at Delaware and one of the first in the country to install hand-held keypads in a classroom to facilitate feedback from students. His honesty in evaluating the cost-effectiveness of this effort was refreshing, especially so in a business where hyperbole has so often reigned supreme. The Department of Education's FIPSE program recognized this effort through a grant, and UD President David Rosell, in his capacity as "student for a day," often recounted his experience in Dick's classroom.

Many of his students became lifetime friends. One wrote to Mrs. Herr, "I often make things a little more complete, or more versatile, or more accurate, or more concise, or more giving of insight, or more generally elegant, because I am imitating Dick's tendencies towards those things."

Photo (available in PDF version) courtesy of Harry Shipman.

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