December 1, 2008

Edwin Salpeter, Transformative Leader in Astrophysics, Dies

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One of Cornell’s most renowned astrophysicists, Edwin Salpeter, died of leukemia last Tuesday at his home in Ithaca. The 83-year old professor leaves a long legacy at Cornell and was a revolutionary figure in the world of science.
“More than any other individual, Ed put the physics into astrophysics,” Prof. Ira Wasserman, astronomy, told the University. “Ed transformed our field forever.”
Salpeter was born in Austria and received his Ph.D. from Birmingham University in 1947. He fled the country as the Nazi party gained momentum in the 1930s. He came to Cornell in 1949 as a postdoctoral student and at the time of his death was the J.G. White Distinguished Professor of Physical Sciences Emeritus.
Salpeter described himself as a “generalist,” with curiosities that spanned a number of fields within physics. His most pivotal work included his contribution to the “Salpeter-Bethe equation.” Alongside his mentor and fellow Cornell professor Hans Bethe, the two described the interaction between two fundamental particles under a quantum field theory.
Additionally, Salpeter introduced the “Salpeter process,” which illustrates how helium in stars forms carbon. The “Salpeter initial mass function” serves as the basis for observational studies of the life and death of stellar mass. His research helped him determine the number stars of varying masses that make up the Galaxy.
Salpeter’s work with Soviet physicist Yakov Zeldovich in 1964 proposed that gas that streamed toward black holes could be heated to produce detectable X-rays. It was not until 30 years later that the Hubble telescope could provide the data necessary to verify this theory.
“It’s good to finally win the bet,” Salpeter said at the time of the discovery, according to the Associated Press.
In 1997, Salpeter won the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, a prize that recognizes the achievements made in fields of science that are not acknowledged by the Noble Prize. He shared the prize with Sir Fred Hoyle, the British scientist who coined the term “Big Bang.”
“Ed’s contributions to astrophysics revolutionized whole subfields,” said Salpeter’s colleague, Saul Teukolsky, the Hans A. Bethe Professor of Physics, according the University. “And yet no matter how eminent he became, Ed retained his humility and sense of fun. Colleagues visiting Cornell always wanted to talk to him, not just because he was a great scientist, but because it was truly a delight to spend time with him.”
“Ed is one of the most respected scientists in the world, and his unpretentious attitude has made him a great human being,” said Yervant Terzian, the David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences, at a symposium that was held in honor of Salpeter when he retired in 1997.