Wal Sargent

By Sean Carroll | October 30, 2012 3:48 pm

I’m very sad to report that Wallace Sargent, a distinguished astronomer at Caltech, died yesterday. Wal, as he was known, was a world leader in spectroscopy and extragalactic astronomy, with a specialty in studies of quasar absorption lines. He played a crucial role in numerous major projects in astronomy, including serving as the director of the Palomar Observatory. He was awarded numerous major awards, including the Bruce Medal, the Helen B. Warner Prize, the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship, and the Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics.

A glance at Wal’s home page will quickly reveal that he led an active an extraordinarily productive life. Those who knew him, however, will remember a warm and enthusiastic personality who was always happy to talk. He mentored numerous students, and contributed greatly to the spirit of Caltech’s fantastically successful astronomy program. Our thoughts to out to his wife Anneila (also a distinguished Caltech astronomer) and all his friends and family.

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  • Jonathan McDowell

    I’ll always remember how approachable and generous Wal was to young scientists – as I remember from when I was a grad student

  • Karthik Sarma

    I had the honor to sit with him on the Faculty Board as an undergraduate — he was a tremendously fair-minded man who always took the time to consider the student opinion before voting (alas, unlike many of his peers). What a terrible tragedy. My thoughts go out to Prof. Anneila Sargent and the rest of the family at this time of loss.

  • Robert Kirshner

    Wal was one of the great ones at Caltech.
    I have always admired his science, his independence, and his care for graduate students.

    Wal was the first person from his grammar school in Scunthorpe ever to attend university: he maintained a healthy sense of just reward for hard work. This made him the ideal thesis advisor for many of my colleagues– John Huchra, in particular.

    Wal claimed to understand the rules of every game played with a ball. He certainly understood the infield fly rule, as we verified on several evenings at Dodger Stadium.

  • Todd Boroson

    Wal was my mentor when I was an undergrad, and I owe him a great debt for my success in astronomy. He also taught me to appreciate single malt scotch, the writings of Raymond Chandler, and sumo wrestling, probably in that order. My thoughts also go out to Anneila. I will miss Wal.

  • http://www.astro.ucla.edu Michael Rich

    Wal Sargent was a monumental figure who epitomized much of what is great about astronomy at Caltech. As a graduate student, I found his lectures profound and inspiring, and set my standards accordingly. Among his significant achievements are his graduate students, many of whom have had an impact on astronomy as great as his own. Wal was taken from us far too soon, and I am reeling from this news. One recent memory was his moving eulogy, given from the heart, of his great friend and collaborator, Leonard Searle. Having a beer with Wal was one of my great memories at Caltech; I had looked forward to enjoying more relaxed times with Wal, in his retirement. Alas.

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  • http://www.astro.dur.ac.uk/~irs ian smail

    The wide-ranging discussions with Wal over coffee are some of my fondest memories of my time at Caltech. His claim that spectroscopic data had more intrinsic worth than imaging was something that I argued strongly against at the time (given my background in weak lensing). But over the intervening 20 years, I have come to realise that he was right – there is far more interesting astrophysics to be extracted from spectra. He will be missed and my thoughts are with Anneila and the family.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    “He also taught me to appreciate single malt scotch, the writings of Raymond Chandler, and sumo wrestling, probably in that order.”

    I heard that on a visit to Japan, instead of collecting a fee, travel costs etc he asked for a VIP seat to watch some sumo wrestling.

  • Elizabeth Griffin

    The region of England where Wal grew up is characterized by a strong loyalty and by a directness of speech. Wal applied that to his science, able to get quickly to the heart of a matter and to stand firmly by his ideas and convictions. That ability, coupled with a very genuine modesty and ‘niceness’, helped make him one of Caltech’s ‘greats’.

    Yet Wal was not necessarily right every time. He and Anneila were in Cambridge (UK) when their first child was born. Somehow Wal had anticipated that his heir would be a boy, and he freely admitted to being not only very surprised but also completely delighted at discovering that he was actually father to a daughter.

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  • Nick Woolf

    I met Wal on our first day as undergraduates at the Physics Department at Manchester.
    We went through both undergraduate work, and graduate school in Astronomy together.
    During my graduate work I needed to make a measurement at the solar telescope at Dunsink, in Ireland, and so I invited Wal to help me. At that time he was studying to be a theoretician.
    But, when we got back, Wal was of the opinion that observational work was not that difficult.
    So when Franz Kahn came back from Cal Tech, and told Wal that Jesse Greenstein needed someone to help with the Abundance Project, Wal thought he was quite up to this work. He went to Cal Tech. He became an observational astronomer, and he never regretted it.
    He will miss being there to see Machester United winning the Premier League this year, as
    he and I are both sure it will. We have been lucky to have Wal with us,

  • Doug McElroy

    He was most kind and helpful to feckless undergraduates. He could not only do top-notch research, he could even teach well.

    To many of us, he was a legend. And a legend never dies.

  • http://digitalnikosmos.blogspot.com/ Lutvo Kurić

    The Higgs boson is the particle. There are other particles. These particles are subatomic empirical pictures masses. However, the same we do not reveal the essence given reality. Mendeleyev was once lined the chemical elements in the table. However, he discovered a digital image of a table that explains the essence of the creation of chemical elements. Genetics has revealed empirical picture of the processes in this teaching, however, did not disclose the algorithms that determine the essence of these processes. These algorithms have been recently discovered. The Higgs boson is detected with the methods of empiricism. Philosophy tells us that reality is never as it seems we see. He does not look the way we say it empirics. I think that CERN project uses outdated methods of research. Results of this study will give us an explanation for the given reality.

  • Kim Venn

    I’m so sad to learn of Wal’s passing. He was not only a great astronomer, but also a great friend to his many colleagues and collaborators. I’ll miss him and his sense of humour terribly.

  • Al Wootten

    Sorry to hear that Wal is no longer with us. He was a gifted conversationalist and original thinker, whether the subject be spectroscopy, baseball or scotch. Best wishes to Anneila and their family.

  • Craig Hogan

    I have many wonderful memories of Wal that I’ll always treasure. Many of them consist of similar hilarious scenes of Wal in a pub garden near Cambridge holding forth with a pint of Abbott, poking fun at privilege in colorful dialect. But my favorite was a night spent at Palomar with Wal doing quasar spectroscopy with Alec Boksenberg and his machine in tow, working through a rolodex of secret QSO coordinates. Wal talked all night as he worked, and somehow conveyed at the same time his usual irreverence about colleagues, his sense of awe about the cosmos, and his deep feeling about the Hale telescope as a sacred place.

    He was one of the great astronomers of our time, and a great friend.

  • http://Ksj.mit.edu/tracker Charlie Petit

    Wal Sargent was also a generous and helpful source and lucid explainer for news reporters who rung him up for a quick quote or extended interview. Years ago he invited me for an all-night run at Palomar. His grad student (postdoc?), the then unknown to us science writers Alex Filippenko, was in the control room with his wit and effusiveness already fully formed.
    Imagine my surprise to learn that Wal, this eminent and good-humored Brit, was a foaming baseball fan. I cannot remember his team, alas.. Yankees?


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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] cosmicvariance.com .


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