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William A. Rense (1914–2008)

Published onDec 01, 2009
William A. Rense (1914–2008)

On March 28, 2008, the space research community lost another of its pioneers. William A. Rense, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder, who died in Estes Park, Colorado, following complications from cancer. He was 94. Bill, as he was widely known, was born in 1914 in Massillon, Ohio, the son of German immigrants. His was a large family - five brothers and one sister. His father, Joseph Rense, worked for the city of Cleveland while his mother, Rosalia (Luther) Rense was a housewife.

As a child, Bill developed a love of astronomy which led him to earn a bachelor's degree in physics and astronomy from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, followed by master's and PhD degrees in physics at Ohio State University. He held teaching positions at Rutgers, University of Miami (Florida), Texas A & M, and Louisiana State University before taking his final appointment at CU in 1949. While teaching at LSU, he met and in 1942 married Wanda (Childs) Rense.

In addition to teaching physics at CU, Bill did research in CU's Upper Air Laboratory. His early work there included studies of polarized light and its implications for the analysis of zodiacal light. He and his co-workers also began developing instrumentation to be flown above the Earth's atmosphere in sounding rockets. In 1952 he obtained the first photographic spectrogram of the solar Lyman-alpha line of hydrogen (121.6nm).

This work was followed in 1956 by the first full disk spectroheliogram in Lyman-alpha. These results could not have been possible without the use of pointing control systems for sounding rockets. These "sun trackers" kept the payloads pointed at the sun long enough for the measurements to be made, and CU was a pioneer in their development.

The expanding research venue led the Upper Air Laboratory to be renamed the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), and Bill Rense was its first director. He continued his research into the properties of the solar atmosphere with high resolution observations of He I and He II (58.4 and 30.4 nm) and O I (130.5nm), as well as terrestrial atmospheric absorption measurements, utilizing the sun as an Extreme Ultraviolet source. In the meantime, the pointing control business proved to be so popular that it was transferred to a then-small local business owned by Ball Brothers Research Corporation. It is now the Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corporation.

Bill retired from CU in 1980. He had a successful and productive career at LASP, but teaching was his first love. Besides teaching undergraduates, he trained graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in the latest research techniques. His family recalls the joy he took in teaching honors classes at their home in Boulder as well as the many letters he received from the students he inspired. He had a constantly enquiring mind and loved to share his curiosity with others, whether the subject was beat frequencies heard on a jet plane or stellar constellations seen from Estes Park.

Bill was a devoted amateur naturalist and kept detailed records of the weather and of the first appearances of birds and flowers observed at his summer cabin in Allenspark, Colorado. One of his earliest publications concerned the nighttime observation of migrating birds, seen as they flew in front of the moon. It is a technique employed by birders as far back as 1902 and still used today. Working in collaboration with George H. Lowery, Curator of the Museum of Zoology at LSU, Bill established the observational ground rules that would enable ornithologists to determine the compass heading, altitude and density of birds along their nocturnal flyways.

When people are asked what Bill Rense was like, a word that frequently comes up is "courtly". In all his transactions with other people, Bill was unfailingly soft spoken and gracious. When confronted with a profoundly bad idea, his typical response would be to say, "Well - that's different." In a field sometimes dominated by large egos, his unassuming manner may have been what made him stand out as a teacher and as a friend. A quote from Alexander Pope seems to fit him: "True politeness consists in being easy one's self, and in making everyone about one as easy as one can.

William A. Rense is survived by his wife, Wanda Rense of Estes Park, Colorado, and three sons: William of Estes Park, John of Anchorage, Alaska, and Charles of Los Alamos, New Mexico. A memorial service was held on April 2, 2008, at Good Samaritan Village, Estes Park.

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