Sunday, March 6, 2011

Dr. Jim Elliot: Discoverer, Teacher, Mentor and Friend (1943-2011)

Once in a lifetime someone crosses your path with the perfect combination of life skills, knowledge and passion. Jim Elliot was such a person. James Ludlow Elliot was born in 1943 and received his S.B. degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1965 and his Ph.D. degree from Harvard University in 1972. Before returning to MIT in 1978, he was a postdoc and faculty member in the Astronomy Department of Cornell University where as a part of a team in 1977, discovered the rings around the planet Uranus. Their team watched as Uranus appeared to blink several times passed the planet then blinked the same amount of times. At first it was a very big surprise to the group.  Their first answer was that the equipment had malfunctioned. They later (after careful analysis) realized the blinking was caused by a band of rings surrounding the planet. These rings are very dark and narrow, unlike Saturn's, which are bright. Voyager II sent back many pictures that clearly show these rings. Elliot was also part of a team that observed global warming on Triton, the largest moon of Neptune. Dr. Elliot ended his career as  Professor of Physics and Professor of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at MIT, and Director of the George R. Wallace, Jr. Astrophysical Observatory. Elliot used the techniques of planetary astronomy, particularly stellar occultations, to probe planetary atmospheres and the physical properties of small bodies in the outer solar system and beyond. Of particular interest to him was Pluto, Triton, Kuiper Belt objects and extrasolar planets. Dr. Elliot was good at it too. He, along with Paul Schechter and others at MIT and Harvard College Observatory, have constructed a CCD camera for the Magellan telescopes at Las Campanas Observatory, Chile. Elliot also worked with colleagues at the Lowell Observatory to build a high-speed imaging photometer for occultations (HIPO) for NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). 

To list all of the accomplishments for science that Dr. Elliot has earned would take more space than I have to type.  With that said,  all those accomplishments are nothing in comparison to the way he taught and nurtured the great minds that are  planetary scientists today. I asked Dr. Heidi Hammel , world renown planetary scientist and the first undergrad student of Dr. Elliot for a bit of a window into the man that was James Elliot.  She replied: One of Jim Elliot's gifts was this: he gave young students his trust, and thereby enabled them to do things they otherwise might never have tried. In my case, after I had graduated from MIT, he considered me a fully trained astronomer, literally. That summer, he sent me off to grad school in Hawaii with a letter stating that I was supposed to do his observations at the University's 88-inch telescope. It caused all kinds of trouble - this girl coming in who was not even yet a graduate student, saying she was supposed to use the a telescope on Mauna Kea. Why, they didn't even let graduate students use the telescopes without supervision! Jim was adamant that I do it, though; he refused to come to Hawaii. Eventually we worked out a deal that a postdoc would come with me to "supervise". It was cloudy, but that didn't matter. Jim had made his point, and I was fully empowered. I've heard many of his other students tell similar stories: sent off to who knows where with his utter confidence they were up to the challenge. And so, of course, they were. 

John of Salisbury wrote once: "We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours." Jim was one of the giants that  John mentions.  That really only scratches the surface of Jim as a Mentor.  He deeply cared about people,  his people in particular.  Dr. Michael Person of the MIT Planetary Astronomy Lab a research scientist directly under Dr. Elliot wrote in regards to Jim's caring nature: "I echo Heidi's impression of Jim as a mentor. He was certainly a great influence in my life. A true mentor in the classic sense, those of us who apprenticed under him were fortunate enough to not only learn our craft from a master, but to spend years with a man who cared as much about how his students progressed in their lives as he did in their research. As much friend as teacher and colleague, he will be sorely missed."Anyone who ever knew Jim or studied under him could echo these comments about this great man. Jim lives on in the people he has touched. His legacy is great for his techniques will be built upon as we study distant planets orbiting distant stars, or discover even more distant worlds in the far off frozen world of the Kuiper belt. Moreover, He has shown the value of empowering students to go out and take life by the horns and do the impossible. Those are truly great words to teach and live by.  Go peacefully into the night Jim. You have left this world in good hands.
Until next time,

Keep looking up!

Steve T


  1. Desde España seguiremos tu ejemplo y dedicacion a la ciencia y cada vez que mire el espacio con mi telescopio y con mi mirada me acordare de ti.

    Espero que la nasa lance una mision a urano y le ponga tu nombre.

    Jorge m.g.

  2. Donde esta mi comentario ??? por que no lo ponen ??.

    saludos desde españa.

    Jorge m.g.