John Peter Huchra: A Memorial Minute
Wednesday, June 18, 2014
News Feature

John Huchra, Robert O. and Holly Thomis Doyle Professor of Cosmology, died at his home in Lexington, Massachusetts, at the age of 61 on October 8, 2010. His goodness, knowledge, and passion left a deep impression on astronomy and his passing has left a void with his colleagues and students. John was an observer’s observer, who mastered the art of using telescopes as a graduate student. He pioneered the exploration of the universe through redshift surveys at the Harvard- Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and helped establish the current rate of cosmic expansion using the Hubble Space Telescope. This is the key ingredient in establishing the age of the Universe. His industry, kindness, and wisdom are legendary among astronomers.

John was born on December 23, 1948, in Jersey City, New Jersey, and grew up in Ridgefield Park. His father was a railroad conductor and his mother a homemaker. As a high school student, John immersed himself in science and science fiction. To help pay for MIT, John worked summers driving tractor-trailers onto railroad cars. He said he kept his Teamster’s Union membership current, claiming to be the only member of this Faculty who was also a member of that organization. Always modest, John said he could always drive a truck if astrophysics did not work out.

As an MIT undergraduate, John went on to write two articles for the Astrophysical Journal on theoretical topics and gained admission to graduate school at Caltech. He went to Pasadena after failing his draft physical: rippled corneas only affected his vision of nearby objects, not galaxies. As a graduate student, John worked with Wallace Sargent, himself a consummate observer, and found his calling in making telescopes do his bidding. John was the last person to use the perilous Newtonian focus at the top of the 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson. His thesis work, on a new class of galaxies that are forming stars at an exceptional rate, was a single-author work that has been cited 290 times. As a graduate student and then as a postdoc at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) starting in 1976, John observed 100 nights in a year. He claimed it was because the meals on the mountain were free.