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Robert Neal Whitehurst (1922–2000)

Published onDec 01, 2001
Robert Neal Whitehurst (1922–2000)

Dr. Robert Neal Whitehurst, age 77, a retired Professor of Astronomy at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, died on 28 April 2000. Dr. Whitehurst received his BS and MS degrees at the University of Alabama in 1943 and 1948, and his PhD in Physics at Stanford in 1958.

Working with various colleagues and students at the University of Alabama during the 1950's, Bob's research concerned the technical side of radio astronomy. He developed devices for measuring solar radiation and atmospheric attenuation at the 6-mm wavelength.

As visiting astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville and Green Bank, Bob joined M. Roberts and T. R. Cram in studies of the distribution and kinematics of the neutral hydrogen in the central region and outer disk of the Andromeda Galaxy. Results of that work were published from 1972 through 1976. The Andromeda system, a huge six degrees in angular extent in HI, is large enough that detailed measurements could be made with filled aperture radio telescopes such as the late 300-foot telescope at Green Bank and the 100-meter instrument at Effelsberg. Their remarkable finding of a flat rotation curve for this galaxy, the first such curve to be extensively documented, was initially received with skepticism even though such a rotation curve that did not approximate a Keplerian falloff with distance was theoretically suggested in the literature as early as 1939. Later observations of spiral galaxies by others at both radio and optical wavelengths showed that this important signature of the kinematics within a galaxy was ubiquitous, leading to the conclusion that significant amounts of dark matter must be present and extend well beyond the optical boundaries of such systems.

Bob was instrumental in starting the astronomy program in the University's Department of Physics and Astronomy, which has since grown to six faculty members. His friendly attitude and kindly encouragement to younger faculty members will be greatly missed.

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