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Walter James Wild (1954–1999)

Published onDec 01, 2000
Walter James Wild (1954–1999)

Walter J. Wild, a senior research associate in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, collapsed and died at the age of 44 while attending a lecture at the University on January 11, 1999. Walter was known world-wide as an expert on the mathematics of adaptive optics, a real time technique for compensation of image distortion caused by atmospheric turbulence.

Wild was born on the southwest side of Chicago in October 1954, the only son of Walter and Helen Wild. His mother introduced him to the stars at an early age, and as a family they watched meteor showers. and observed the sky from the roof of their small house. Walter won a scholarship to the Illinois Institute of Technology and earned a bachelor's degree in physics in 1976. After working in industry, he returned to school at the University of Arizona and received his MS and PhD degrees in optical sciences in 1983 and 1988.

Walter was the author or co-author of more than 40 refereed papers, 25 of them published before he completed his PhD. Early publications included such diverse topics as effects of magnetic fields on black holes, the three body problem, thermal runaway in germanium, coded aperture imaging, optimized thin film design, and gamma-ray pinhole cameras.

Walter moved on to the Starfire Optical Range near Albuquerque, New Mexico and held the position of research physicist in the US Air Force between January 1988 and September 1990, a time when research there was still classified. He was a major contributor to the digital control laws required for operation of the laser beacon adaptive optics systems being developed on the 1.5-meter telescope. His work formed the basis of a graphical software package now widely used in the adaptive optics community to compute large, complex matrices loaded into real-time wave-front reconstruction processors.

In 1991, Walter returned to Chicago as a research associate in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago working with Prof. Edward Kibblewhite on the development of adaptive optics for use in astronomy. He was responsible for the control algorithms of the system built for the Apache Point 3.5-meter telescope. It was his initiative and persistence that persuaded the Department of Defense to donate the Wavefront Control Experiment hardware to the University. Walter installed this system, originally intended for experiments on the space shuttle, on the 41-inch reflector at Yerkes Observatory. The system became a great educational and research tool and helped bring about a renaissance in astrophysical research at Yerkes. In addition to his own work on software and hardware associated with adaptive optics (AO), Walter sponsored a group of amateur astronomers and encouraged them to use their talents to improve and operate the 41-inch telescope and adaptive optics system.

Wild was the originator and nucleus of a complex, worldwide information network. He talked frequently with students, faculty, and researchers in universities, observatories, industry, federal labs, and facilities allover the world. He was an encyclopedia of what was happening in areas of component development for adaptive optics, the latest AO observational results, who had been funded to develop what by when, the latest theories and advanced concepts, and upcoming one-of-a-kind astronomical events that someone should observe.

In August 1993, he married Krystina Pruczko. Their son, Matthew James Wild, was born December 9,1995. As much as he loved his work, Walter's greatest joy and source of pride was his family. He devoted significant time to his son, playing with him and teaching him how to be a scientist, in the way he had been inspired by his parents.

Walter Wild was a true professional, showing respect and giving credit where due. We feel his absence and miss his humor, goodwill, and friendship, and his contributions and participation in our community.

Photo courtesy of Robert Fugate

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