An Astronomer-Climber


Discussion Topic

Return to Forum List
This thread has been locked
Messages 1 - 20 of total 69 in this topic << First  |  < Previous  |  Show All  |  Next >  |  Last >>

Trad climber
Poughkeepsie, NY
Topic Author's Original Post - Aug 31, 2011 - 10:15pm PT
I opened an email today with this link in it,, and I found myself thinking of Lyman Spitzer.

When I was a grad student, I discovered that guiding was more lucrative and usually more fun than teaching low-level math classes to poorly-prepared students who often saw mathematics as a sinister device concocted by the intellectual establishment to keep them from getting a degree.

One of my regular climbing clients was Lyman Spitzer, among the most distinguished astrophysicists of the 20th century. Lyman was a one-man student-body upgrade of, if you'll allow me, astronomical magnitude.

In 1946, Lyman wrote a paper, Astronomical Advantages of an Extra-Terrestrial Observatory, that described in detail the advantages of having a telescope in space, outside the Earth's atmosphere. This was twelve years before NASA, and he spent the next fifty years of his life working to bring this idea to fruition and studying the results.

In 1962, he led a program that culminated in NASA's Copernicus satellite, launched in 1972 and operational for nine years, which studied the ultraviolet spectrum from space, wavelengths blocked by the Earth's atmosphere.

In 1965, Lyman was appointed to head a National Academy of Sciences committee to define appropriate objectives for a space telescope. It took ten years of lobbying congress and fighting with recalcitrant scientists before NASA and the European Space Agency finally began to develop the Hubble telescope, the source of the photos linked above. The development process itself took fifteen years; Hubble wasn't launched until 1990.

Anyone who has ever worked a proj has got to appreciate the passion, dedication, and commitment, the refusal to give up, that Lyman exhibited for the 44 years it took for his idea to become a reality. And he remained intimately involved in the issues the Hubble had and their resolution, as well as in studying the astonishing wealth of information it returned, right up to the moment of his sudden and unexpected death, at the age of 82, in 1997.

I haven't even touched on Lyman's revolutionary research accomplishments and his many awards. He was truly a giant of 20th century science.

We spoke of these things during our climbs, since I was, after all a mathematics graduate student. Normally, we climbed on a weekday, and Lyman, the distinguished Princeton professor, rolled up in a junker station wagon that would have been the pride of any dirtbag climber. My grad-student-mobile was several cuts above his ride. As a person, he was totally unpretentious and unfailingly cheerful. His enthusiasm for climbing was nearly boundless, and could be problematic for me as the guide.

One day, it was absolutely pouring. Not just drizzling---pouring. There wasn't a shred of doubt in my mind that there would be no climbing that day, Lyman bounded out of his junker with his usual big grin and said, "Looks like we'll be getting a bit wet today!" I couldn't believe it---he wanted to climb in this torrent!

And so off we went to Shockley's Ceiling, which had a curtain of water running over it that made it difficult to even look up for the holds. Even with rain jackets and pants, the water got in everywhere and totally soaked us, and we were both shivering by the time we finally made it to the top. I was terrified that, in spite of the fact that we were now getting hypothermic, Lyman would still want to do another route or two, but thankfully he decided to call it a day, although not without an enthusiastic recounting of just how wonderful everything had been.

I felt like a drowned rat, but there wasn't even a hint of grimness in Lyman's celebrations, no macho we-did-Shockley's-in-full-conditions bravado, just an almost childlike delight in having spent a day on the rocks. What a man.

Lyman's will contained a bequest to the American Alpine Club, to which he belonged, to establish the Lyman Spitzer Cutting-Edge Grant for "state-of-the-art, cutting-edge climbing through financial support of small, lightweight climbing teams attempting bold first ascents or difficult repeats of the most challenging routes in the world's great mountain ranges." You can read about this year's recipients at

In 2003, NASA launched a new cutting-edge astronomical laboratory, far more capable than the Hubble or anything else before. It is more than fitting that this leap forward in deep space exploration is named the Spitzer Space Telescope.

A toast to Lyman Spitzer, scientist extraordinaire, lover of rocks and mountains, and a man of uncommon accomplishments, eclipsed only by the cheefulness, modesty, and decency of his demeanor.

Don Lauria

Trad climber
Bishop, CA
Aug 31, 2011 - 10:20pm PT
Here's to Lyman Spitzer!
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Aug 31, 2011 - 10:20pm PT
not just an astronomer, but also founded the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab (PPPL)


Trad climber
sorry, just posting out loud.
Aug 31, 2011 - 10:43pm PT
Thx i'm always amazed at various work that our climbing brethen do.

Aug 31, 2011 - 10:46pm PT
Wow . . . A great BIG toast to this gentleman!
Mighty Hiker

Vancouver, B.C.
Aug 31, 2011 - 11:07pm PT
There do seem to have been a fair number of mathemagicians, fizzicists and the like who gravitated (pun intended) toward mountains and climbing, especially from the 1930s to 1970s. Maybe the clear atmosphere is conducive to thoughts of star gazing.

Speaking of space-related things, the rocket that the Russians launched recently, to supply the International Space Station, crashed in Siberia due to a third stage failure. They're looking at the causes, and the next time they can launch. The problem being that the two Soyuz craft currently attached to the ISS will exceed the 200 day lifespan on their hydrogen peroxide powered thrusters in the next month or so. If one or both can't be replaced, the station may have to go on skeleton crew (3), or even temporarily be decrewed.

Today's trivia: A SuperTopian who need not be named is married to a daughter of James van Allen. (Not me, but someone from this area.)

El Presidio San Augustin del Tucson
Aug 31, 2011 - 11:09pm PT
Thanks for posting this!

I am apprenticing with a few master Opticians- learning the art/science of optical glass fabrication.

My colleagues made the corrective optics that helped Hubble reach its potential.

We are currently starting work on the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope primary mirror, which will become the lagest solar telescope on the world. It will be the most challenging optic ever- an off axis parabola 4+ meters in diameter.

What a man!
Thanks again rgold.

Trad climber
Douglas, WY
Aug 31, 2011 - 11:27pm PT
You must be at the University of Arizona mirror lab with Dr. Angel.

El Presidio San Augustin del Tucson
Aug 31, 2011 - 11:29pm PT
Close. Real close.

El Presidio San Augustin del Tucson
Aug 31, 2011 - 11:38pm PT
What happened when the optician fell into the polishing machine?

He made a spectacle of himself!

Sorry, optician humor.
Spider Savage

Mountain climber
Sep 1, 2011 - 12:34am PT
Smart people rock climb for fun.

They also know the sky.

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Sep 1, 2011 - 12:44am PT
What happened when the optician fell into the polishing machine?

He reflected on his life?

Mike Bolte

Trad climber
Planet Earth
Sep 1, 2011 - 12:52am PT
Thanks Rich! A wonderful man. I gave a colloquium at Princeton not too much before Lyman passed away. One of my research areas is stellar dynamics and he and I had lunch on one of the days I was there. It was a rare treat to be able to chat with one of the great minds of the field and hear about how his thinking had evolved in the development of the field. A very gracious gentleman.

A toast!

EDIT: hold it Mighty Hiker. My father's PhD advisor was Van Allen at the University of Iowa! He probably knows van Allen's daughter (who would be about my age I guess)

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Sep 1, 2011 - 12:55am PT
Many a young climber has had their climbing dreams realized because they were recipients of the American Alpine Club's Lyman Spitzer Grant.

Trad climber
Poughkeepsie, NY
Topic Author's Reply - Sep 1, 2011 - 12:54pm PT
Posts like this have a half-life of maybe twelve hours on Super Topo, so I'm gonna give it a bump in honor of Lyman.

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Sep 1, 2011 - 01:24pm PT
Of course this will get limited play on ST, it's about someone who actually accomplished something during his lifetime.

Trad climber
Sep 1, 2011 - 01:32pm PT
nothing worse than a rainstorm and an enthusiastic client, heh.
scuffy b

dissected alluvial deposits, late Pleistocene
Sep 1, 2011 - 01:39pm PT
Great story, Rich.
I remember that at one time I thought climbing in the rain was a good
thing. What happened to me?

Sep 1, 2011 - 02:01pm PT
Rich, when we lowered Lester off the climb on which he died, being there to see the end of a magnificent story was very hard to bear. Lester and Lyman both wrote inspiring history we would all wish to have go on and on. I think the only thing that helps is the realization that youngsters all around are writing inspiring stories, now. Just being here to see it all happening is enough.

Trad climber
The Circuit, Tonasket WA
Sep 1, 2011 - 04:59pm PT
Great story, Rich.
Thanks for the post.
Messages 1 - 20 of total 69 in this topic << First  |  < Previous  |  Show All  |  Next >  |  Last >>
Return to Forum List
Our Guidebooks
Check 'em out!
SuperTopo Guidebooks

Try a free sample topo!

SuperTopo on the Web

Recent Route Beta