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Robert Leroy Wildey (1934–1998)

Published onDec 01, 1998
Robert Leroy Wildey (1934–1998)

On January 4, 1998, Dr. Robert L. Wildey, Professor of Mathematical Physics at Northern Arizona University (NAU) passed away unexpectedly in Flagstaff, Arizona. He had been a member of the Physics and Astronomy faculty since 1981.

Bob was born August 22, 1934, in Los Angeles, California and began his career in 1959 as a Research Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, while pursuing his PhD at the California Institute of Technology (BS 1957, MS 1958, PhD 1962, all in astronomy and astrophysics). In 1961, he was appointed first a Research Fellow at Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories, and then a Lecturer in Astronomy and Geology in the Division of Geological Sciences at CIT, after completing his degree in 1962 with a thesis on the stellar content of the Perseus spiral arm (with advice from H.C. Arp and A.R. Sandage). During this period, his pioneering work contributed significantly to the field of infrared astronomy, with particular emphasis on the l0-micron window, in collaboration with Bruce Murray and James Westphal.

In 1965, Bob joined Flagstaff's Astrogeology branch of the US Geological Survey (USGS) as an astrophysicist, where his research interests began to migrate toward the Moon and other solar system objects. In spite of this shift, his interests beyond the solar system remained strong, reaching as far as the topic of his 1965 paper in Probe, entitled "Science, Philosophy, and Zen Buddhism," as well as the more conventional areas of variable stars and globular clusters. He received a NASA Certificate of Appreciation for his contributions to the Apollo Program.

NAU became Bob's home in 1971, when he was appointed to its faculty as an Associate Professor of Astrophysics and Astronomy. In 1981, he was promoted to Professor of Mathematical Physics and Astronomy, a position he held until his untimely death. During his tenure at NAU. Wildey continued his collaborations with colleagues at the Flagstaff Branch of the USGS, where he aggressively pursued his studies of Moon. This interest blossomed into the most ambitious research project of his life. He built the NAU/USGS Robot Lunar Observatory, to measure the Moon's albedo in the visible and near infrared spectral regions, at an accuracy sufficient for use as a photometric standard by the Earth Orbiting Satellite. Bob's own words describe his planned, final phase for this project as "a comprehensive program of radiometric observation of the Moon and standard stars into the period beyond emeritus professorship." Much had already been accomplished and published, in collaboration with Hugh Kieffer of USGS.

Bob's research was only part of his contribution to his profession. His teaching at Caltech included all lower division standard courses in physics and astronomy and the development of graduate courses in observational techniques for planetary astronomy. At NAU, he not only lectured in all the upper division theoretical undergraduate courses, but he also developed an undergraduate course in general relativity and taught an honors colloquium in natural philosophy. He was a member of the International Astronomical Union (Commissions 16 and 17), the American Geophysical Union, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the Geological Society of America, and the Royal Astronomical Society, as well as of AAS.

Fellow faculty remember Bob for his biting wit, his high standards, and his true concern for his students. Students were more often in awe of him than not, and frequently saw the value of his rigor and style only well after their experience in his classes. Gary Bowman, a student from the late 1980's, who has since joined the NAU faculty, remarked, "Over the year, I had many long talks with him on diverse subjects ranging from steam locomotives to physics to religion. While Bob may not have always suffered fools gladly, he exhibited a benevolent tolerance of those with whom he disagreed." As a scientist, Bowman adds, "Bob was not a technician ... He was a man of deep insight ... Here was someone who saw in physics a deep and personal quest, a supremely worthwhile way to spend one's life."

Wildey is survived by his wife, Diane, sons Herbert and Robert, daughter Wendy Carol, and a number of other family members and friends, and was predeceased by an infant son. His career was punctuated with too many firsts and honors to list here. But for NAU, the biggest honor was having him on our faculty. We all miss him.

Photo (available in PDF version) courtesy of the Northern Arizona University.

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