Brian Marsden, 1937 – 2010

By Phil Plait | November 18, 2010 8:51 pm

I’m sad to say that the eminent astronomer, and my friend, Brian Marsden died today.

This one is tough. I knew Brian; not terribly well, but we were friends. He was the Director Emeritus of the Harvard Smithsonian Minor Planet Center, having run the asteroid and comet clearing house for many years. Anyone from anywhere in the world who discovered a minor body sent the note and data to him. He may not be a household name, but every planetary astronomer on Earth, and many amateurs as well, knew him by name.

You can read his obituary online, and I imagine a lot of bloggers will be writing stories about him — he was quite a character. Let me tell you one of mine.

Back in 1997 or so, I was working on STIS, a Hubble camera that had just been lofted into space and installed into the observatory. We got a lot of pictures from the camera, of course. We had software which automatically grabbed all the new data overnight, and first thing every morning I’d go through them to see if there was anything interesting.

One day, I found a little streak in an image. Ha! I knew right away it was an asteroid. I checked more images, and sure enough we had a total of nine pictures of it! I worked with my friend Eliot Malumuth for a couple of hours on it; the streak it made was curved, which we were able to attribute to the changing perspective of Hubble as it orbited the Earth. But we were able to tease out a rough distance from that — smack in the middle of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter — and then calculate its size; roughly a kilometer (0.6 miles) across.

Excitedly, I called Brian. I had chatted with him once before, when the asteroid 1997 XF11 was thought to be a potential danger, and was already thinking of names for the rock since I would be granted discovery status. I told him about the asteroid, and could hear him "yes"ing and "mmmkay"ing over the phone. I asked if it would be possible to get followup observations, since we couldn’t get a good orbit over such a short period of time.

That’s when he asked me a simple question. "How bright is it?"

I had already measured that. "24th mag," I promptly replied.

What I heard next over the phone was a surprise: laughter.

And before he could say anything, I knew why he was laughing. 24th magnitude is faint. The faintest star you can see with your eye is a million times brighter than my asteroid. There wasn’t much of a chance a ground-based telescope would be able to follow up, or at least, it wasn’t worth the time of the size of telescope we’d need.

Feeling foolish, I thanked Brian for his time, and we both got a good laugh out of it. That still makes me smile. And no, I never heard of any followup of that asteroid.

One other thing. When we were filming the first episode of Bad Universe, we went to the Minor Planet Center and interviewed Brian. He and I sat on the observer’s chair at the venerable Harvard 15″ telescope, chatting on camera about near-Earth asteroids, the Minor Planet Center’s role, Brian’s role, and other topics. We also ate lunch together with the film crew, where he told us about the history of the observatory. Due to the vagaries of making a TV show, the segment with him didn’t make it to air, but it was a lot of fun to get to hang with him, even if only for a couple of hours or so.

Astronomy won’t be the same without him.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Bad Universe, Piece of mind

Comments (22)

  1. Kevin

    I never had the pleasure of meeting the man, but I did get to talk to him a couple of times back a few years ago.

    And since I don’t really have to words to describe the man, or what he meant to me personally, I’ll stop right here. I agree, astronomy won’t be the same.

  2. KC

    Wow. What a loss.

  3. Gary Ansorge


    The only way I have of accepting such loss is knowing that, somewhere in the world, another such light has been born. That’s the best thing about the cycle of life, the new kids on the block.

    Gary 7

  4. He added to our knowledge. Let’s take his example and add to our knowledge.

  5. Magrathea

    Oh dear, no, he was one of the cornerstones of many established practices that have matured so well under his guidance and hard work. He will be missed, RIP Brian.

  6. Messier Tidy Upper


    Surprised & saddened to hear this. Marsden will indeed be sorely missed. My condolences to his friends and family.

    I hope there is at least one minor planet bearing his name if not several.

    Allan Sandage the other day, Marsden today, what a sad week for great astronomers its been. :-(

  7. Messier Tidy Upper

    PS. Checked on wikipedia :

    &, yes, there’s one asteroid named in his honour : # 1877 Marsden.

    Also surprised to see he’s only credited with one asteroid discovery :

    Because he’s done so much in the area of discovering minor planets and helped so many with his work in that realm. An odd name there but a very nice one once you realise what it means.

  8. I never met him face to face, but have spoken to him on the telephone in the past (in the context of reports for the CBAT, before the time of everybody having an e-mail connection) and communicated by e-mail. Brian Marsden was one of those figures that were an Institute in themselves. Judge and Jury in his function(s) at the CBAT and MPC. And whenever orbits came into play, the absolute authority, no doubt. His successors at the CBAT and MPC (Green, Spahr, Williams) are excellent experts in their fields as well, but Marsden had something of being a King, an Institute: someone demanding the utmost respect even if you didn’t agree with him on something. Him dying is very, very sad news. Another one of the Big Guys gone….

  9. very sad indeed… there were times when I spent hours dreaming of me calling Brian so that a comet would be named after me… yes every serious amateur astronomer in the world knew him.

  10. Karl

    I was so sad to find out about this yesterday. Since 2003 I’ve had the honor of working with Brian on the SOHO ‘sungrazing’ comets — which were a particular favorite subject of his. I’ve had countless fascinating, funny, and insightful conversations with him as we’ve puzzled over these weird objects. My last correspondence with Brian was a couple of weeks ago — November 5th. The last line of his email read “Three cheers for Guy Fawkes.” (It’s a British thing…) I’ll really miss those one-liners of his.

    It’s a terrible loss for astronomy and it’s clear he will be missed by a great number of people.

  11. That is sad. :( I didn’t recognize the name immediately but when you mentioned where he worked and what he did I knew right away who you were talking about. I’ve seen him on a few documentaries. He definitely needs a celestial commemoration if he doesn’t already have one.

  12. Minos

    I hope we get to see that interview eventually. Perhaps as a DVD extra for the Season 1 set, if not as streaming video.

  13. I could pretty much count on sharing a laugh (or many laughs) with Brian whenever we had a chance to chat. He was a great scientist but more than that, a really good guy. I know he’ll be missed by many folks, including me.

  14. Matt

    Phil, I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your friend, and the loss of a friend to science.

  15. One one of my few observing runs (at the NOT on La Palma), I had a similar asteroid discovery. Theoretically, three positions are enough to compute an orbit, but in practice one wants more to get down the error bars. However, it was also too faint to follow up. (The NOT is about the same size as HST, though the seeing isn’t quite as good.) Yes, we contacted Brian and he noted that we shouldn’t be surprised to have found something unknown that faint.

    IIRC, he is one of the few True Believers who still used VMS in astronomy.

  16. Buzz Parsec

    When I was an undergrad, the Harvard Observatory had a bunch of shared-processor Wang calculators stationed in the hallways. Each calculator had 2 or 3 display/keyboard units on a table near by. (10-12 digit Nixie-tube displays,, plus large numeric and function keys on the attached keyboard.)

    One day (about 1973) I was sitting at one of these checking the results of a Fortran program I was debugging, when Dr Marsden wandered by. He asked me what I was doing, and we ended up talking for a couple of hours about other uses for computers (beside just calculating orbits), the Arpanet (predecessor of the Internet), and so on. In response to some leading questions I rambled on endlessly about using the Arpanet to receive observations and distribute MPC notifications. (The group he headed was then called “The Central Bureau for Astronomical TELEGRAMS, yes, real Western Union-style telegrams!!) Also about using computers to maintain databases of known objects, which could be searched for research purposes and to quickly determine if a new observation was an existing object or a new one. About on-line, world-wide instant access to information, etc.

    I still don’t know if this was all totally new to him. I know he used the CDC (before the VAX, Phillip!) to calculate orbits, but there wasn’t any available disk storage at the time, everything was on cards or tapes, and I don’t know if he had an electronically readable database of asteroids and comets, or if it was all in paper files. For a project involving the Solar UV telescope on Skylab, the little group I was working for part-time was making a database of observations (date, time, wavelength, heliocentric location, notes about sunspots, active regions and other interesting phenomena, etc.) It was all on IBM cards. This was all pretty cutting edge at the time. We wrote a bunch of programs for sorting and searching the data, it might have been one of those I was working on.

    The observatory wasn’t online yet. My roommate who was a comp sci major was playing with Arpanet all the time, but you had to go to the computer center to access that. So e-mailing the “telegrams” wasn’t an option, but it was clearly coming.

    I don’t know if this was all old hat to Dr. Marsden, and he was just using the Socratic method to make me think about it, or if we were really literally creating history that afternoon, but either way he was a wonderful teacher and those few hours had a huge effect on me. (I’m now a computer programmer/analyst/software engineer/whatever you want to call it, and do this kind of stuff every day.)

    Thank you, Dr. Marsden.

  17. George Martin

    I never met Brian Marsden but read a very large number of the Central Bureau telegrams. I did once phone in, to an answering machine, coordinates derived from a UVA 26 plate inch for the very bright 1975 Nova Cygni (V1500).

    I’m curious about Buzz Parsec’s memory about the Harvard CDC computer which he mentioned there wasn’t any available disk storage at the time, everything was on cards or tapes . The first computer I ever used was UVA’s CDC 6400 in 1971. It had, for the time, lots of disk space. But outside of class account/projects and the like, one had to have a paying account to store things on disk. And I don’t remember it being inexpensive.

    I still have a soft spot in my heart for CDC computers and their 60 bit words and its ones complement integers. (Imagine an integer negative zero, all 60 bits set to one.) Single precision floating point was 48 bits.


  18. Anchor

    Brian Marsden did more than anyone else in encouraging amateur astronomers that their data was important AND more importantly, encouraging the professional community to accept that fact. He was a great human beimg right down to the bottom of his heart.

    Kevin #1 is right: Astronomy won’t be the same. It will be a harsher world getting ephemerides without his trusty name attached. That guy cannot so easily be replaced…and one hates to think what they will ‘replace’ him with.

  19. Greetings and Salutations.
    We are losing too many great minds, movers and shakers in the Astronomy field. The good news, I suppose, is that Marsden’s work over the years will be a legacy that will continue to provide valuable data for decades to come. I can only pray that the many people that he influenced over his long and valuable life will step up and use that inspiration to work as hard as they can to provide the same sort of contributions that Brian Marsden did.

  20. The Marsden-VMS connection is here: . A couple of years ago, I recall seeing a job announcement for some contract work to do some upgrades.

  21. The dimmest star you can see with your eye is A MILLION times brighter than Magnitude 24?

    More like FIFTEEN million times brighter! Am I right, girls?

  22. Randy Green

    Brian liked to play scrabble…one day I laid down the word “invex” knowing full well that it was not a word. Brian huffed and puffed, questioning the word, but I convinced him that invex was the opposite of convex, and as a brilliant scientist, he should know that. He refrained from challenging the word, and when I admitted that I made the word up, he just laughed. He always enjoyed a good belly laugh.


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