R. Grant Athay's Legacy Lives On

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The staff and alumni of the High Altitude Observatory were deeply saddened to hear of R. Grant Athay’s passing on June 10, 2015, in Provo, Utah.

Grant Athay and others image
Grant Athay (center).

Born in Cache Valley, Utah, in 1923, Grant trained and served as a meteorologist during World War II before becoming an influential solar astronomer at HAO and within the international community from 1950 until he retired in 1990. Grant was acting director of HAO for some of that time. Most remember Grant for his pioneering work in radiative transfer, the understanding of the Sun’s transition region, and his general scientific breadth while paying attention to detail. In addition, Grant served as a mentor and advocate for HAO staff across the spectrum during his career where his caring demeanor was always on show.

Bruce Lites, a Senior Scientist Emeritus at HAO, knew Grant as his mentor and Ph.D. thesis advisor. The following is an excerpt from an email written by Bruce to HAO staff upon receiving the sad news:

“His influence on my career extended well beyond my thesis work.  He was the person who first suggested I look into analysis of Stokes polarimetry from the Stokes II instrument in the early '80s. That impetus set the stage for the past three decades of my career which led to development of the Advanced Stokes Polarimeter and then the Hinode Spectro-Polarimeter.  In turn, those instruments [ … ] have in fact defined modern observational studies of solar magnetism.

Grant will be remembered forever also for his pioneering works on the solar chromosphere and the theory of non-LTE radiative transfer. Again, that set the stage for generations to come, both in solar and stellar physics.

Most importantly, though, Grant was a kind, wonderful person. This seems to be reflected also in his children and his wife Twila, from the brief encounters I have had with them. It was such a joy to be able to bring Grant out of retirement to HAO for the 2nd Hinode Science Meeting in 2008. That large international gathering was a showcase of exciting new science that would never have been possible without his pioneering work.”

BC Low, a renowned and recently retired HAO Senior Scientist, also offered his deep condolences and has the following to say:

“I joined HAO as a junior scientist in 1981 with Grant as one of my two section heads. I knew Grant earlier as a post-doctoral at HAO. Grant and I both shared a passion for the Sun's atmosphere especially in what we called the phenomenology, meaning that above all the technical and scientific issues, what is the Sun doing as a whole natural system. Grant had a neat way of describing the Sun to be spilling out photons, motions, and magnetic fields, which respectively create the photosphere, chromosphere, and corona by their dissipation. This Athay paradigm and its modern development was described in a review, which Grant, Dick White, and I published, perhaps his last paper, and he drove it with great enthusiasm as Dick and I remember.

I was the Acting HAO Director when Grant retired around 1990. We had a lunch together when he was leaving. He said that non-LTE astrophysical energy transfer that he discovered and developed was one of the fabulous moments he came into science for, but as he left science he felt Twila and his family were his most precious throughout his life.

It is a privilege to have learned from Grant and been in his company.”

Grant was truly one of a kind and will be sadly missed, but his legacy lives on through his family and through the research he published. In September HAO will host a celebration of its 75th anniversary. During that event we will showcase some of the work performed by the HAO pioneers of which Grant is most certainly one.