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William Mason Kaula (1926–2000)

Published onDec 01, 2000
William Mason Kaula (1926–2000)

William Kaula, professor of geophysics at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and one of the leading geophysicists and planetary physicists of the last four decades, died of cancer at the age of 73 on April 1, 2000.

Bill Kaula developed some of the earliest expansions of the Earth's gravitational field using satellite geodesy, and he published a pioneering book describing the state of the art of geodesy at that time, Theory of Satellite Geodesy (1966) and later, after he moved to UCLA, he wrote Introduction to Planetary Physics (1968). He published more than 250 papers on a broad range of subjects, including applications of his geodesy expertise to other terrestrial bodies, and on the interpretation of the gravitational fields of these bodies in terms of interior properties. He also published on tidal evolution, chaotic dynamics, the history and stability of planetesimal distributions, the formation of terrestrial planets through accretion, the formation of the solar system, origin of the Moon, comparative planetology including compositional implications, thermal history of terrestrial bodies, especially Venus, and the quest for fast and accurate numerical integration schemes to follow solar system history and evolution. He must have devoured most of the literature in dynamical planetary science and in the physics of the solid solar system bodies—one could ask him questions on almost any subject and he would understand the material in detail and know who had published what when.

William Kaula was born on 19 May 1926 in Sydney, Australia. As a youngster, he traveled with his family to New Zealand, Holland, and the United States, finally spending most of his youth in Massachusetts. He attended the US Military Academy at West Point and graduated with a BS in Military Engineering in 1948. After military service and a return to studies at Ohio State University, he received a Master of Science degree in geodesy in 1953.

Kaula was named chief of the Division of Geodesy of the Army Map Service in 1957, and became a research scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in 1960. He joined the University of California, Los Angeles faculty as a professor of geophysics in 1963, a position he held for 30 years. He retired in 1993 but remained active in his field for the rest of his life.

At UCLA, Kaula served as chair, first for the Department of Geophysics and Space Physics (1972-1976), and thereafter for the Department of Earth and Space Sciences (1982-1984). He was a frequent participant in NASA missions, as team leader for the laser altimeter on Apollos 15, 16, and 17, and team member for the radar and gravity experiments on the Magellan spacecraft. He was chief of the National Geodetic Survey of NOAA from 1984 until 1987, editor of two major scientific journals, and chair of numerous academic and professional scientific committees.

Kaula's scientific contributions were recognized by numerous honors and awards including Fellowship in the American Geophysical Union (1964), an honorary Doctor of Science from Ohio State University (1975), and the NASA Medal for exceptional scientific achievement (1983). In 1987, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, received the Whitten Medal of the American Geophysical Union, and, in 1989, received the Brouwer Award of the American Astronomical Society's Division on Dynamical Astronomy. In 1996 the asteroid 5685 was officially named Kaula in his honor.

William Kaula was particularly proud of two achievements. He was the first person for a period of 15 years to receive a tenured appointment in the physical sciences at UCLA without a PhD degree, and there has been no other such appointment since. He was also the first graduate of West Point to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences since George Squires, chief of the Signal Corps in 1919.

Bill Kaula was president of the Geodesy Section of the American Geophysical Union, and one of the original organizing committee in 1969 for the Division on Dynamical Astronomy (DDA) of the American Astronomical Society. He served as a DDA committeeman from 1971 to 1973, as DDA vice-chairman from 1974 to 1975 and as chairman from 1975 to 1976.

Bill's fight with cancer would have driven most of us to all-consuming self-pity and anger. Yet he remained always cheerful and optimistic. He wore a hat to hide the wounds that would not heal, and he proceeded with his life as if nothing were wrong. He remained scientifically active until the very end, having co-authored at least six papers last year. His service to the University also continued until the very end as he was a member of the extremely demanding UCLA Committee on Academic Personnel when he died, fretting a few days before the end that he was not doing his share. We shall miss his energy, enthusiasm and counsel.

William Kaula is survived by his wife, Gene Hurley Kaula and stepchildren Don Jensen, Janet Jensen, and Patty Schwarz. He is also survived by his first wife Denise B. Kaula and their children, Anne Shapiro, Jaqueline Kaula, Marie Bleochle and Charles Kaula. There are nine grandchildren.

(This tribute has been compiled from one read at the Annual Meeting of the Division on Dynamical Astronomy held in Yosemite National Park on 9 April 2000 and from the tribute published by the University of California, Los Angeles Public Information Office.)

Photo courtesy of the UCLA Department of Earth and Space Sciences

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