Robert Jastrow

March 8, 2008

I learned today that Robert Jastrow died last month. Jastrow was the founder and director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), which he headed until 1981. After leaving GISS he taught at Dartmouth and the Marshall Institute in Washington, D.C., and he headed the retrofit of the 100-inch telescope at the Mt. Wilson Observatory.

Robert Jastrow, in color

Jastrow captured a lot of young minds with his book, Red Giants and White Dwarfs, which put a lot of cosmology into everyday English.

But as a careful scientist dedicated to explaining complex things in simple terms, he often was misunderstood, or seen as cranky and reactionary. To his death he remained skeptical that human action could change climate. And his few paragraphs attempting to reconcile rapidly-advancing science with religious thought are often abused by creationists to claim Jastrow as one of them, and not a scientist who supports evolution (his writings are rather clear on his support of the theory of evolution and the science behind it; most creationists don’t bother to read all of the book).

Jastrow was an alumnus of Camp Rising Sun, a project of the Louis August Jonas Foundation, in upstate New York. And while a lot of us affiliated with the foundation are cautious about pre-selection bias, we’d like to think that the unique experiences developing leadership that the campers get in some small way contributed to Jastrow’s leadership in space exploration.

GISS Director James Hansen’s eulogy is below the fold.

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