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William K. Rose (1935–2010)

Published onDec 01, 2011
William K. Rose (1935–2010)

William K. Rose died on September 30th, 2010.

Stellar astrophysicist William Kenneth Rose died near his home in Potomac, Maryland, on September 30, 2010, after an extended illness. Rose was the son of pharmacist Kenneth William Rose and Shirley Near Rose and was born in Ossining, New York, on August 10, 1935. He received an AB from Columbia College in 1957 and a PhD in physics from Columbia University in 1963, with a thesis on “measurements of linear polarization in discrete radio sources using a 9.4 cm maser,” under the direction of Charles H. Townes. Rose played a major role in designing and constructing the maser and used it at a radio telescope at Maryland Point that belonged to the Naval Research Lab. He observed Jupiter and Saturn and a number of extra-solar-system sources, and also diffuse centimeter emission (see appendix). The thesis was not published in an archival journal, but can be found under Library of Congress code QB 475.R67.

While in graduate School, Bill married Sheila Tuchman, whose primary scientific interests were biological. None of their three children chose to be scientists, but two are CPAs. Bill moved successfully through the academic hurdles — from a research position at Princeton (1963–67), where a collaboration with Nick Woolf and Martin Schwarzchild on the infrared spectra of giant stars became one of his most-cited papers, to assistant and associate professorships at MIT (1967–71), and then associate and full professorships at the University of Maryland (1971 to retirement in 2005). His most innovative work was probably that on nova explosions arising from degenerate ignition of hydrogen accreted on white dwarfs in close binary systems, published in 1968. The same idea occurred to others at about the same time, and Bill did not, perhaps, get quite his fair share of the credit.

I first met Sheila and Bill in summer 1969 at the Stony Brook summer school on stellar evolution (not published until 1972). He lectured on the nature of nova explosions and on nuclear burning in thin shells in stars and the instabilities in each. Almost equally memorable, when the Roses had to depart a few days before the end of the school, they left behind a perfectly magnificent cake for the students to share at the closing party. During the first year that I was a visiting assistant professor at the University of Maryland, Bill and I team-taught the very first of the astronomy program's courses designed to fulfill a new, junior-level breadth requirement. It was called “The Inconstant Universe.” I did cosmology and be did high-energy astrophysics.

We were also two of the three authors of a short paper called “A low mass primary for Cygnus X-1?” It pointed out that, if the primary of HDE 226868 was a low-mass, hot, short-lived helium star (on which each of us had published previous papers) then the solution of the radial velocity orbit, which came only from the lines of the OB primary, could yield a companion mass small enough for the X-ray emitting component to be a neutron star rather than a black hole. Such a system would be intrinsically much fainter than one with an OB supergiant primary, and so must be much closer to us than a supergiant plus black hole system. Our prediction resulted in two serious observers rushing to telescopes to look for interstellar absorption features in the optical spectrum of HDE 226868. They found lines with the velocity signatures of two spiral arms, thus placing the system at a large distance, giving it high luminosity and large mass. It was and is a black hole. The paper had the distinction of being the only one either of us ever wrote that was accepted and typeset before the postcard arrived by seamail to announce its receipt.

Bill Rose lent his expertise to a wide range of topics, including models of X-ray and radio sources, magnetic fields, pulsar radiation mechanisms, formation of stars and black holes, and nucleosynthesis. Another much-cited paper, with Beatrice M. Tinsley, had a pun for its title: “Late stages of stellar evolution in the light of elliptical galaxies.” The point was that the gE optical and IR emission is dominated by evolved stars, so that one can learn a good deal about the giants from integrated spectra and colors (and must get the stellar population right to understand the galaxies).

Three advanced undergraduate textbooks resulted from Rose’s interest in education at that level, though he also taught non-major courses and coordinated the graduate qualifying exam in astronomy for many years. A fourth book was nearly finished at the time of his death, and Sheila Rose is looking into having it completed and published. Three of his four University of Maryland thesis students remain active in astronomy and science education: Phil Hardee, John Cowan, and James Beall.

Rose was a member of the International Astronomical Union and its Commission (34) on interstellar matter, though curiously not of 35, stellar constitution. He was also part of the American Astronomical Society, AAUP, and the Washington and New York Academies of Science. The Maryland astronomy program was, in its day, a very collegial one. It was Frank Kerr, one of the two founding members, who proposed both Bill Rose and me for membership in the Cosmos Club as persons distinguished in science.

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