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Sidney O. Kastner (1926–1999)

Published onDec 01, 2000
Sidney O. Kastner (1926–1999)

My father, Sidney O. Kastner — solar physicist, astrophysicist, and AAS member — died August 25, 1999, at the age of 73, following a stoic battle with cancer. Most of his 50-year career in science was spent at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where, in 1959, he was one of the first scientists hired by the Laboratory for Astronomy and Solar Physics. He remained on the Lab science staff until 1982, when he chose to retire. After a brief hiatus in the early 1980s,he returned to Goddard as a consultant, and he maintained a presence there until shortly before his death.

Kastner's early career as a solar physicist and atomic spectroscopist was entwined with a parallel career in amateur astronomy. Eventually he merged them and applied his spectroscopic insight to astrophysical problems, such as spectral line diagnostics of stars, planetary nebulae, and quasars. The legacy of his contributions to solar physics and astrophysics is summarized in a bibliography of more than 100 papers, published in more than a dozen journals. The ever-accelerating pace of his research is reflected in the fact that about one-third of his papers were published within the last 10 years. He had finished, or was at work on, several more manuscripts in the weeks immediately preceding his death, some of which are only now appearing in the astronomical literature.

Sidney Kastner was born in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1926, the third of four children. His oldest brother, Jacob (d. 1981) was a renowned physicist; his brother Aaron is a doctor; and his younger sister Elizabeth, a writer and musician. He lived in Winnipeg until leaving for Montreal to attend McGill University, where he earned a BSc in physics in 1950. It was at McGill that he met Bernice, a Montreal native working on her degree in honours mathematics and physics; they married in 1951. After brief stints with the Canadian National Research Council and General Electric Research Laboratory, he began doctoral work at Syracuse University under Prof. T.H. Watkins of the Chemistry Department. He defended his thesis, "Infrared and Raman Spectra in Molecular Crystals," in 1961, shortly after starting work at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

The Kastners settled in Greenbelt, Maryland, becoming members of the editorial board of The Greenbelt News Review, and Sidney revived a childhood love of music, taking up the viola and playing in various chamber music groups. His astrophysics papers published from Goddard ranged from analysis of emission line spectra of solar flares to critical evaluations of the presence of Bowen resonance fluorescence in planetary nebulae. He belonged to the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the New York Academy of Sciences, as well as the AAS.

I cherish the fact that our scientific interests eventually became sufficiently close that we were able to share many aspects of our professional lives. In recent years, our identities would occasionally become confused by a journal editor in search of a referee, bringing us both a great deal of amusement. But some of my keenest early memories involve family excursions in the wee hours of the morning to witness the appearance of a comet or a particularly noteworthy performance of the Perseids. He built numerous telescopes and astrocameras, some from kits and some to his own designs using materials discarded by the Goddard Lab. He used these to capture images of a solar eclipse and photo-mosaics of the Coma cluster of galaxies. Perhaps his crowning achievement was the 12-inch reflector he constructed and housed in a small observatory in our back yard. In retrospect, I suppose it's not hard to understand how I developed my own interest in astronomy.

My father also leaves behind my mother Bernice, now a semi-retired mathematician and math educator, my sisters, poet Judith Skillman and physicist and philosopher Ruth Kastner, who recently received her PhD in Philosophy of Science from the University of Maryland; and seven grandchildren, ranging in age from 3 to 22.

"He showed us constellations
while we slept on pillows
under meteor showers,
waiting for supernovae.
Or did headstands
on wet grass under the Moon's
partial eclipse, pink craters
that ached to be beautiful."

From the poem, "Waiting (for my Father)" by Judith Skillman.

Sidney O. Kastner with (l. to r.) Ruth, Joel and Judy in 1960. Photo courtesy of Bernice Kastner


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