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Family, friends celebrate astrophysicist Ed Salpeter

One of his first memories of Ed Salpeter, said physics department chair Saul Teukolsky, stems from one of Teukolsky's first visits to Cornell in the 1970s.

"It was one of those bright sunny days that you get in Ithaca right this time of year," he told the many dozens of admirers who gathered in Barnes Hall March 14 to celebrate Salpeter's life. "Pretty much like today -- about 45 degrees, beautiful blue sky … the first hint that maybe the ice age is not going to be permanent."

Teukolsky, who to that point had lived only in warm climes, was well-bundled against the chill. But "Ed, of course, was in shorts," he said. "Shorts, a big smile on his face -- full of the joys of life."

Salpeter was many things, said the day's speakers: a towering intellect; an esteemed and influential astrophysicist; a respected and brilliantly quirky teacher; an active public policy critic. He also was a passionate skier, pingpong player and music aficionado; and a devoted husband and father. But whatever his role, his admirers agreed, it was the image of Salpeter as irrepressibly optimistic, with warm manner and infectious grin, that left the deepest impression in their memories.

Salpeter, one of the most influential astrophysicists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, died in Ithaca Nov. 26, 2008. At his death he was the J.G. White Distinguished Professor of Physical Sciences Emeritus.

His lasting contributions to astrophysics include the Salpeter process, which describes how helium nuclei fuse to form carbon in the interiors of stars, and the Salpeter Initial Mass Function, which remains the basis for contemporary studies of the rates of stellar births and deaths.

He also worked with his wife, Miriam (Mika), professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell, on research into the interactions between nerves and muscle fibers; and with his daughter, Shelley, a physician, on the epidemiology of tuberculosis. And he was active in public policy throughout his life, performing classified research in the 1960s on anti-ballistic missile defense systems and in the 1980s serving on a panel commissioned to study directed energy weapons systems.

Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson, whose acquaintance with Salpeter began with the exchange of a bicycle in 1949, remembered his friend's agile intellect. "Ed was proud to be a generalist," Dyson said, and he cherished his freedom at Cornell to pursue different fields as they caught his interest, turning down more lucrative and prestigious positions that would have boxed him into a single field.

Judy Salpeter said her father's refusal to be lured by money or title was a reminder to focus on the truly important things. "Money or status or even prestige weren't particularly important to Dad. The important things to him were human -- things like family and friends and service to people," she said.

"It goes without saying that learning was important to my dad," she added, "and perhaps more important as anything else, or at least right up there with family, colleagues and friends, was integrity: following your ideals and beliefs, standing up for what's right, speaking up for justice, and … being a good person."

Ed Salpeter was "a towering figure in physics and astrophysics," said Yervant Terzian, the David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences and former chair of the astronomy department.

And he was a man about whom there are many stories.

There's the time he left his briefcase in Terzian's office and remembered it two weeks later. The time he absently ate an apple belonging to the person sitting next to him at a conference.

And there's the Maple Syrup Story, in capital letters for its prominent place in Ed Salpeter lore.

Freeman Dyson told the story.

"Many times during his tenure, [Salpeter] received offers for jobs in other places with higher salaries ... grander titles and more burdensome administrative duties," said Dyson.

One such time, he said, Salpeter sat down with his wife, Mika, to calculate "what it would really mean to them to change their lifestyle from modest academic poverty to substantial wealth.

"They calculated that most of the advantages of wealth would be illusory, making their lives more complicated rather than happier," Dyson said. "The only real advantage of wealth would be to allow them to put genuine maple syrup, instead of imitation syrup, on their pancakes for breakfast.

"They then did another calculation," he continued, "which revealed that even on a Cornell salary, they could afford to eat genuine maple syrup. From that time on, they bought only genuine syrup -- and continued to refuse all offers to move."

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Simeon Moss