In Memoriam Thomas Wdowiak

In Memoriam Thomas Wdowiak Thomas J. Wdowiak, Associate Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), USA, and a member of the Mössbauer Instrument team for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers (MERs), passed away on 27 April, 2013. He was 73 years old.

Planetary science and exploration were Tom’s lifelong passions. Already at the tender age of 7, Tom’s interest in things extraterrestrial was kindled by his discovery of a painting in the basement library of his elementary school in Binghamton, New York, which depicted Charles Bonestell’s idea of a Martian landscape. As Tom puts it, “That’s the first time I was exposed to the concept of Mars as a world – not a planet. There’s a difference. A planet, you look at. But a world is a real place that you can stand on, can walk around on!”

Shortly thereafter he was following his passion for science by carrying out chemistry experiments in the basement of his family’s home. In high school, he experimented with rockets. It was dangerous business, but that didn’t deter Tom. At age 17, following the launch of Sputnik, his expertise was suddenly in demand, and he was conducting lectures to area science teachers on rocketry and satellites and being interviewed by the local TV station about space travel.

Tom attended colleges in New York and Florida, completing his Ph. D. degree in Astronomy and Astrophysics at Case Western Reserve University in 1971. After 4 years at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, he accepted a faculty position at UAB, where he has been since that time. At UAB his research focused on understanding the organic dust of interstellar space and its transformation into solar system materials and on extraterrestrial material in general from the perspective of exobiology.

In Memoriam Thomas Wdowiak His involvement with Mössbauer spectroscopy began in the early 1980s while seeking an explanation for the polarization of starlight. He had cleverly acquired a sample of the primitive meteorite Orgueil and wanted to look for tiny magnetic grains, presumably of interstellar origin, within it. Tom asked one of us (DGA) for an introduction to the technique, and together we showed that superparamagnetic material was indeed present in this meteorite. Later joint investigations of exobiological interest included the discovery of nanophase ferric iron at the 65-million-year-old KT boundary and the demonstration that Mössbauer spectroscopy can identify all the iron-bearing minerals found in samples of an iron-rich hydrothermal spring mound in Yellowstone National Park.

Tom was a dedicated educator, introducing an estimated ten thousand students to astronomy during his teaching career at UAB. He was very generous with his time in educating the public and was often seen, heard, or read on local TV, radio, and newspapers. He described his regular science column in the local newspaper, which he had for several years, as follows: “each month I become ‘Tommy Test Tubes’ in the Saturday edition of the Birmingham News/Post Herald, presenting a full-page, in color, kids’ section of science experiments, all based on, and tested by, my childhood experiences. The experiments utilize things found in the home, at the supermarket, home improvements store, and of course Radio Shack.” ‘Tommy Test Tubes’ is a nickname he had acquired as a kid.

Among the many graduate students Tom mentored over the years, Luther W. Beegle stands out as a sort of follower in Tom’s “footsteps.” Since graduating with his Ph. D., he has spent 16 years at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a research scientist and is currently a surface sampling systems scientist for Curiosity, NASA’s successor to the MERs. He writes about his time under Tom’s tutelage: “When I chose to attend UAB, I did so after talking with Prof. Wdowiak about my potential research interests. The breadth and depth of his research interests allowed me to explore many different areas, all focusing on the goal of exploring the universe and understanding conditions leading to the origin of life. The word Astrobiologist was not in vogue until after I left UAB, but when it started to enter the lexicon in the 2000s, I knew it described Tom to a Tee. He was ahead of the curve on many things, including convening a workshop, the Point Clear Exobiology Instrumentation Workshop held in May 1996, to better understand the difficulties in identifying life on another planet. This workshop was planned before the famous paper on ALH84001 was published and before most people realized what a difficult task it was to even define extraterrestrial life, let alone identify it. He will be missed”

Tom was an avid reader of science and science fiction, and his fertile imagination and ability to synthesize his acquired knowledge led to several NASA-funded projects to investigate instrumentation for use on other worlds, for example, Europa and Mars. A miniature laser-Raman spectrometer he had conceived and developed (with DGA) was employed in the 1999 NASA-APEX rover field trials, making measurements of Mojave Desert rocks from the breakfast table of a recreational vehicle (RV). In 1997 Tom became an original Co-Investigator for the Athena instrument suite, which includes a Mössbauer spectrometer and occupies each of the two Mars Exploration Rovers.

Many of Tom’s MER colleagues have expressed their sorrow at losing him and have offered insight into his character. Steve Squyres, Athena Principal Investigator writes, “Tom had a great passion and enthusiasm for space exploration in general and for Mars and our rovers in particular. He will be greatly missed.” Göstar Klingelhöfer, MER Mössbauer Instrument lead writes, “It was always a great experience to discuss with Tom about space exploration, new ideas, and in particular Mars. We will miss him very much.” Jim Rice writes, “As a boy growing up in Alabama I remember seeing Tom numerous times on a local TV morning show talking about NASA and educating the public on news in Space Science.” There were many others…

Tom is survived by his wife Patricia, their two daughters, Celeste and Suzanne (wife of PAG), two granddaughters and one grandson.

David G. Agresti, Professor of Physics Emeritus, University of Alabama at Birmingham

Perry A. Gerakines, Astrochemist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

In Memoriam Thomas Wdowiak