Courtesy of Cornell

A giant in his field, Prof. Yervant Terzian had a prolific career that saw thousands of students inspired, dozens of awards won and the Cornell Astronomy Department reach new heights.

December 6, 2019

Revered Astronomy Prof., Former Department Chair, Dies at 80 After Prominent Career

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Praised as an engaging professor, respected academic, persistent leader, compassionate friend and supportive colleague, Prof. Yervant Terzian, astronomy, passed away last week on Nov. 25 at the age of 80 “after a long illness,” according to his obituary.

While Terzian had an impressive and extensive CV — which included receiving NASA’s highest honor and authoring over 235 scientific publications — it was his charismatic personality and passion for supporting aspiring scientists that many of his colleagues and friends remember most as his defining legacy.

“What struck me right from the beginning was just how upbeat and optimistic he always was. Whenever there would be some problem … whatever it was, he always … helped people figure it out,” Prof. Saul Teukolsky, astronomy, told The Sun. “He was completely tenacious, if he had something he wanted to accomplish, he would go at it and just wouldn’t take no for an answer, always with a big smile on his face.”

Terzian began this illustrious career from humble roots. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1939; his father had fled the Armenian genocide at a young age, while his mother was the daughter of a fisherman from a remote Greek island, according to his obituary.

“I was very curious about the sky. In Egypt, the sky was very dark at night, particularly from the desert, and those diamonds in the sky needed an explanation,” Terzian remarked in a documentary made for his 70th birthday by members of Friends of Astronomy at Cornell, a group he founded in 1992. “I started a love with the sky at a very young age. I read all I could about astronomy, it was not easy to find books, but the American embassy had a lovely library where I read all the astronomy books they had.”

Terzian went on to earn an undergraduate degree in physics from the American University in Cairo in 1960 and a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Indiana University in Bloomington in 1965. He then joined the newly built Arecibo Observatory in 1965, which was then managed by Cornell, before coming over to Ithaca two years later as an assistant professor.

He went on to lead the department as its chair for 20 years from 1979 to 1999, which, according to Teukolsky, who also served as chair, is highly unusual. In science departments, individuals typically serve as chair for only three to five years, Teukolsky said.

“He used the time to really oversee the hiring of a lot of the faculty, attracting world class people to come and really increase both the size and the caliber of the department. A lot of it was his doing,” Teukolsky said.

One of the faculty members recruited by Terzian was Prof. Martha Haynes, astronomy, who told The Sun that she first met Terzian in 1973 when she was a research intern at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. She still vividly remembers how, although just a guest lecturer, he still took the students on a field trip and out to dinner.

Terzian later went on to recruit Haynes and persuade her to join the astronomy department at Cornell, changing the trajectory of her career.

“He was an enabler of people,” Haynes said, adding that he not only recruited talented faculty, but was amazing at supporting and retaining them.

As department chair, Terzian was also credited with building consensus and uniting various stakeholders to build up the department into what it is today.

“He presided over a remarkable department, full of wonderful colleagues — Carl Sagan, Tommy Gold, Ed Salpeter … and somehow the wisdom and sheer sense of partnership that Yervant brought to that distinguished group was something that not only kept the department intact, but allowed it to grow,” President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes recounted in the documentary.

“I remember his beating up on me to get two more floors added to the astronomy building and he succeeded and that’s no small undertaking,” Rhodes added.

In 2017, a conference room on one of these new floors — the 6th floor of the Space Sciences Building — was renamed and dedicated to Terzian “in recognition of his many years of leadership, scholarship and citizenship to Cornell.”

Terzian was also remembered for having a profound impact on students, stating in the documentary that “the most important thing for me during my career at Cornell have been the students and I have taught many hundreds and thousands actually of students.”

His introductory astronomy course, ASTRO 1101, which Rhodes called a “legend on campus,” was known for always filling up the lecture hall in Uris for many years.

Prof. Lisa Kaltenegger, astronomy, who is the director of the Carl Sagan Institute and currently teaches that same introductory course, told The Sun that she and Terzian shared a similar attitude towards giving students who might not go on to take additional science classes a chance to appreciate the complexities of the universe.

“He came from a country where it was not easy for him to become a scientist and he made it work and … he also dedicated a lot of his time to make sure that other people could do that too,” she said.

For his engagement in the classroom, Terzian earned the Clark Distinguished Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1984.

His academic focus was primarily on examining the “physics of the stellar evolution, planetary nebulae, hydrogen gas between galaxies and the presence of unseen matter in intergalactic space,” according to a University press release. He also received the Gold Medal, the highest honor for scientific achievement, from the Armenian government, served on eight NASA committees, directed the NASA New York Space Grant Consortium, and held a variety of other scientific leadership positions.

In the documentary, Terzian said he realized that “Cornell is the place for me, and Arecibo is the telescope … Through the decades at Cornell, it has been a journey of happiness, discovery, science, education. Cornell has been a fantastic place to have a career.”

His obituary asks that “in lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Armenian National Science & Education Fund.” Terzian was the founder of this fund, which is “a project that ultimately promotes scientific innovation by giving the unique opportunity to Armenian scientists to carry out research in their home country through the support of annual grant,” according to its website.

A memorial service for Terzian will be held on Friday from noon to 2:30 p.m. at 404 Highland Avenue in Ithaca.

“He is a bright and bubbly personality who just loves to share what he does and his awe and his intense and deep knowledge of the universe,” his wife, Patricia E. Fernandez de Castro Martinez, said in the documentary.