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William J. Kaufmann, III (1942–1994)

Published onDec 01, 1995
William J. Kaufmann, III (1942–1994)

William Kaufmann, one of the best-known popularizers of astronomy, died suddenly at the age of 51 in 1994. He left behind a legacy of nontechnical books through which students, amateurs, and the public learned about some of the most abstract and fascinating research topics of our day.

Kaufmann was born in New York City and attended Adelphi College, where he received a B.A. in physics magna cum laude in 1963. After obtaining an M.S. in physics from Rutgers University, he moved to Indiana University where he took his PhD in astrophysics in 1968. He was an instructor of astronomy at UCLA from 1968 to 1969 and then was a postdoctoral fellow in the relativistic astrophysics group at Caltech from 1969-1970. It was here that he fIrst began developing his ideas on how to present current topics in relativity theory (including the still controversial idea of black holes) to the public in an accessible way.

In 1970, Kaufmann was selected as the Director of the Griffith Observatory, a post he held until 1974. At Griffith, he initiated a number of programs designed to raise the profile of the observatory such as public lectures and planetarium shows on current and exotic topics in astronomy. He started to renovate the museum's Hall of Science and reorganized the staff to help transform Griffith into a more dynamic public education institution. Although he left before many of his initiatives could bear fruit, they were subsequently incorporated into the new Master Plan for Griffith that is now being realized under the leadership of Ed Krupp, who succeeded Kaufmann as Director. While at Griffith, Kaufmann wrote his fIrst popular book, Relativity and Cosmology, published by Harper and Row in 1973. It set out some of the latest ideas in the field at a time when few books were treating these topics. It went through two editions in English and was translated into Spanish and Japanese.

In the 1974-75 school year he was a visiting faculty member at Caltech and then was a research associate and visiting scholar at JPL in 1976, during the Viking mission to Mars. His experience there would eventually lead to a number of books on the planets, including Exploration of the Solar System (1978, Macmillan), the first text to focus on the results from planetary probes.

In 1977, Kaufmann "retired" to Danville, a suburb of San Francisco, to devote himself full time to his writing. To maintain an academic connection, he obtained an adjunct professorship in the physics department at San Diego State University, but never taught there. Here began his most creative years, with book after book emerging from his pen (or word processor). That year he published his first textbook, Astronomy: The Structure of the Universe, which was never the success he hoped it would be, but sharpened his thinking about how to present astronomy at the beginning level.

Also in 1977, Little Brown published what many consider his most important work, The Cosmic Frontiers of General Relativity — without question the best introductory exposition of black holes (and other relativistic ideas) then available. Many of us who were a bit daunted by Misner, Thome, and Wheeler's mammoth Gravitation, but felt we ought to know and teach more about the emerging ideas in relativistic astrophysics turned with gratitude to Kaufmann's wonderfully clear exposition.

In 1978, Kaufmann began a collaboration with W. H. Freeman and Company that would continue until his death. First came a trilogy of popular books, Stars and Nebulas, Planets and Moons, and Galaxies and Quasars, which sold quite well. Then, in 1979, came perhaps his best-known book, Black Holes and Warped Spacetime, setting out the concept of black holes in lay language for the total beginner. This book, which contains one of the first popular-level explanations of Hawking's work on quantum black holes, went through many printings at Freeman, and won the American Institute of Physics Science Writing Award for 1980.

During this time, Kaufmann taught weekend programs at the University of California, Extension Division, most frequently on topics such as black holes and cosmology, and gave popular lectures at campuses throughout California and the country. He was a marvelous lecturer, with unceasing energy, good humor. and a serious devotion to finding analogies to help his audience understand difficult topics at the forefront of science. Over the years, he became one of the most popular speakers at the summer meetings of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, drawing hundreds of participants (including many astronomers) to his dynamic talks. He served on the Board of Directors of the ASP and received the Society's Klumpke-Roberts Award, given for a life-time of contributions to the popularization of astronomy.

In the 1980s, at Freeman's encouragement, Kaufmann began to rethink how to present astronomy to undergraduates. The result was The Universe, the first astronomy text to use color throughout. It became a best seller in the college text field. Since it first appeared in 1985 it went through three editions and generated a shorter version called Discovering the Universe. Shortly before his death, Kaufmann completed the task of putting the latest edition on CD-ROM, a move that can be characterized as either very exciting or very frightening, depending on your attachment to old-fashioned books.

In the 1990s, Kaufmann worked with Larry Smarr and others at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. He and Smarr wrote a book for the Scientific American Library entitled Supercomputing and the Transformation of Science, and he began including sections on the use of supercomputers in his public lectures and textbooks.

Kaufmann was an adept scuba diver and skier, and was proud of his physical condition. In 1976, he appeared in one of the ads for Dewar's Scotch which profiled active people in many professions, an act which caused tongues to wag among astronomers, but only increased the popularity of his lectures and books.

Kaufmann was married to Lee Johnson-Kaufmann. a clinical psychologist and columnist; they had two children, a daughter, Kristine, and a son, William. Death came unexpectedly from a stroke, while he was driving home from his mountain home in the Lake Tahoe area. The many readers, listeners, students, and colleagues whose knowledge of astronomy he illuminated or expanded will mourn his untimely passing.


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