John Huchra

By Sean Carroll | October 10, 2010 10:29 am

jph.2005John Huchra, a leading astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, passed away on Friday. I’m not sure of the cause, but he had been suffering from heart problems; he was 61 years old.

John was most obviously known for his scientific accomplishments, especially as a guiding force behind the CfA Redshift Survey. For you youngsters out there, this project was the pioneering effort at mapping the large-scale structure of the universe. It revealed, to the surprise of many, that there was a lot of structure out there! The iconic image of cosmology in the 1980’s was the “CfA Stickman” reveal in the famous A Slice of the Universe paper by Valerie de Lapparent, Margaret Geller, and Huchra.

CfA Redshift Survey

The stickman was not the universe being playfully anthropomorphic, it was simply the Coma cluster as distorted in redshift space. (You measure positions on the sphere of the sky, but velocities along the line of sight; converting these velocities to distances is inevitably distorted because galaxies in a cluster have peculiar motions inside the cluster.) Before this map was released in 1986, many people assumed that the galaxy distribution would be basically uniform on these scales. They shouldn’t have thought that, in retrospect (you need to go to larger scales before the uniformity becomes apparent), but sometimes it takes real data to get a point across. The survey went on to discover the Great Wall of galaxies, arguably the largest known “object” in the universe.

John had a number of other important contributions, including measurements of the Hubble constant and the discovery of Huchra’s Lens, one of the most dramatic early examples of gravitational lensing. He was also very active in the community, serving as president of the American Astronomical Society and numerous other roles.

But many of us will remember him mostly for his spirit and good humor. When I was a graduate student at CfA, he was one of the most friendly and helpful senior faculty members around, someone you were always happy to bump into in the hallways. There is a guestbook here for people to leave their reminiscences about John; he will be greatly missed.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Personal, Science
  • Michael Merrifield

    One of the good guys, in all senses of the word. I well remember him rounding up all us foreign “waifs and strays” at Thanksgiving, and having us over to his house for the full experience (he was an excellent cook!). A little earlier this year, he took the time to write to one of the local astronomical societies here in Nottingham to help celebrate their 40th anniversary, which truly made their day; the type of entirely gratuitous act of kindness that typified his generosity of spirit.

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  • Matthew Colless

    John was the consummate observer and made some fine discoveries. But perhaps his most valuable contribution to astronomy was his collaborative spirit – few scientists have worked with a wider spectrum of their colleagues or given more generously of their time and expertise.

  • Luke Dones

    I was so sorry to hear this. The first job I had in astronomy was keypunching (!) some of the CFA redshift survey for John and Marc Davis.

  • Leeland Heins

    I’m truly sad to hear this. I had occasion to talk to and photograph Dr. Huchra on a number of occasions at AAS meetings and he was always friendly, patient and gracious. He will be missed.

  • réalta fuar

    I too am very saddened to hear this. I never knew him, unfortunately, but just by seeing him at meetings it’s easy to see why he was as well liked as he was suspected (which surely can’t be said about some of his collaborators).


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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