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Memories of a special moment with Don Backer

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2010-08-02-backer.jpgDon Backer, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Berkeley who discovered the first millisecond pulsar, died on July 25. He was director of Berkeley's Radio Astronomy Laboratory and the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) in Hat Creek, California - a collection of 42 dishes that recently began scanning the sky and searching for extraterrestrial intelligence.

"Memories of a special moment with Don Backer"
By Jill Tarter

Don and I had only a few glancing interactions from the time we were engineering physics students at Cornell until one memorable day in 1982. On that day I pulled my rental car into the parking lot at Arecibo Observatory thankful to have survived the mountain roads (at that time they were still new to me). I stepped out of my air-conditioned vehicle and was assaulted by the heat and humidity of the observatory. I quickly headed into the administrative office building and was temporarily unable to see in the deep shade of the stairwell. Thus I literally ran into a wild man. Don's eyes were the bright twinkly blue we all recall, but they were surrounded by massive amounts of redness because he hadn't seen a bed in a long time. His hair was disheveled, his clothes were worse, and he had totally lost his voice. Don croaked at me "642 Hz!" and I stared back at him blankly. I was clueless. Don noticed.

We moved up a few stairs so that Don could take a long drink of water from the drinking fountain on the landing and then, with many hesitations, squeaks, and an extraordinary amount of body-language, he told me about this mystery radio source. He told me that against all odds (and certainly against the combined wisdom of the astronomical community) the mystery source had turned out to be a neutron star rotating 642 times a second - the first millisecond pulsar! That day Don shared with me the enormous excitement, joy, and satisfaction of science done well. His jubilation had nothing to do with 'see, I was right!' and everything to do with wonder and amazement that the universe contained yet one more exotic object that we could study in detail, and learn from in turn.

That day Don imprinted on me a model of how to do good science and how to be a good person. I believe one of the reasons that Don delighted so thoroughly in working on new instruments with students is because he always hoped that he might assist one or more of them to experience that same excitement and the pleasure of discovering something new about the universe. As Aron Parsons has now shared with us, only days before Don was snatched away from us, he may have done just that - again.

It's always hard to lose a colleague, harder still to lose a friend, but hardest of all to lose such a good guy. I agree with Don's wife Susan's assessment, "Don was the goodest."


View a talk given by Don Backer and Jill Tarter, "The Allen Telescope Array: A Radio Survey Telescope for the 21st Century," in November 2008. This lecture is part of the SETI Institute's Colloquium Series.


Astronomer Jill Tarter is Director of the SETI Institute's Center for SETI Research, and also holder of the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI. She is one of the few researchers to have devoted her career to hunting for signs of sentient beings elsewhere, and there are few aspects of this field that have not been affected by her work.