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Victor A. Hughes (1925–2001)

Published onDec 01, 2001
Victor A. Hughes (1925–2001)

This is to announce regretfully the death of our AAS colleague, Dr. V. A. Hughes, a long-time professor of physics and astronomy at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and since 1900 a professor emeritus in the University. He passed away somewhat unexpectedly in the morning hours of 24 April 2001 after a brief illness and shortly after celebrating his seventy-sixth birthday. He survives in the memories of his wife, Joan, four children and twelve grandchildren. In addition, there are around the globe students, past and present colleagues, and many friends who will mourn his passing and remember him kindly.

Vic Hughes, as he was generally known, graduated from the University of Manchester in December of 1944. For the remainder of the war he was seconded to the Telecommunications Establishment in Malvern (UK) where he became enamoured with various forms of radio detection. Consequently at the end of the war he returned to Manchester and did graduate work in the early days of Jodrell Bank under Bernard (later Sir Bernard) Lovell. By 1961 he had become Principal Scientific Officer in the British scientific civil service at Malvern where he worked with J. S. Hey. That same year he moved to the Radio and Space Research station at Slough (UK) and worked until 1963 with J. A. Ratcliffe. In 1958 Hughes had visited Canada and the US in connection with the development of the Distant Early Warning radar line, and this clearly started him thinking about a new life in Canada. He immigrated to Canada in 1963 and soon became professor of physics at Queens University.

Vic Hughes had a long and distinguished career in Radio Astronomy, which was recognized formally by the award of a DSc by the University of Manchester as a result of his many career contributions. He was present when radio astronomy was a fledgling science just after World War II and he took part in the early successes that created the mature discipline that we have today. He bounced radar off day-time meteor streams with Lovell, and detected the re-entry of Sputnik I. He also got the first short-pulse radar echoes from the moon in the effort to determine its distance to about a half a kilometer. After moving to Canada and Queen's he turned more towards the deep space applications of radio astronomy that were developing so rapidly. He built and used a radio dish at Westbrook (a hamlet near Kingston) that was mounted on a railway track in the hopes of acquiring a second dish and achieving interferometry locally. Unfortunately, the field was moving rapidly away from university-based facilities to national facilities and so the station was never completed. However, Vic was not one to think small and he did use this facility to search for signals from the Galactic center that might have been correlated with the emission of gravitational waves.

Vic moved quickly to use the new national facilities in Canada, Europe and the United States, and was welcomed at the Algonquin Radio Observatory, Very Large Array in New Mexico, the Westerbork Array and the British Merlin Array, among others. He helped to map our own galaxy using these instruments. He also suggested free ranging neutron stars as isolated X-ray sources and studied the formation of interstellar molecules in this period.

Gradually Vic became interested in star formation, the early stages of which remain a deep mystery. He made important discoveries regarding the radio emission associated with the birth of stars generally (for example he was codiscoverer of a strange object in the famous Cepheus A region of star formation that is known presently as the Hughes-Wouterloot object), and in particular he championed their rapid variability at centimeter wavelengths. Long and careful study of the Cepheus A region in particular convinced Vic that he was seeing gyro-synchrotron radiation from electrons accelerated by annihilating magnetic fields in giant protostellar flares. Therefore he concluded that the process of star formation was a magnetically violent one that produced variable sources of high-energy particles. Vic was never content to observe and discover without also considering the theoretical implications of his results. As such he was ever a stimulating influence in our discipline.

Vic was also active in the various astronomical societies. At his death he was a member of the American Astronomical Society and Canadian Astronomical Society/Societe Canadienne d' Astronomie (CASCA), the Royal Astronomical Society and the International Astronomical Union. He was in addition a professional engineer in the province of Ontario. Vic was loyally committed to the development of Canadian astronomy, and was a strong supporter of the creation of CASCA at a time when many thought that all astronomy should be included in the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP). He was also deeply involved in attempts to salvage something from the wreckage of the Queen Elizabeth II telescope project. He was chairman of the board of WESTAR for long periods, which organization controlled any use of the mirror blank for astronomical purposes. He was proud that he had had a hand in preserving that asset, which was eventually sold, and the money used to benefit of such projects as the Canadian contribution to Gemini.

Vic Hughes lived a full, sometimes stormy, life as do all those who strive after great things. But he was never happier than when working on his data and its interpretation for which he had great respect and at which he had great skill. Generations of students and faculty at Queen's became accustomed to his energetic presence in all seasons and at all hours and recognized the unrelenting quest for ideas and discoveries that this represents. He taught respect for the serious intellectual life and he was fundamentally a good and generous man. We shall miss him.

Photograph courtesy of Andrew Kerr

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