Prof. Jay Pasachoff, the longest serving member of the astronomy department, passed away on November 20, 2022. This page is a collection of remembrances of him and his career. If you have any additions or corrections, please contact us.
Memorial Minute for Jay M. Pasachoff, Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy, and Director of the Hopkins Observatory
Karen B. Kwitter, Ebenezer Fitch Professor of Astronomy, Emerita
Presented at the Williams College Faculty Meeting, Wednesday, February 15, 2023
Jay Pasachoff was a force of nature. He was renowned internationally as an astronomer, on campus as a teacher and mentor, and indeed, here in Griffin Hall, as a stalwart faculty meeting attendee, never shy about offering his opinion on the issue at hand, often with an astronomical addendum. At the time of his death on November 20, 2022, his 50-year career at Williams made him the longest-serving current faculty member.
Jay came to Williams in 1972 as the only astronomer. Since then, largely due to his efforts, Astronomy grew to 3 PhD faculty, teaching an impressive group of students, many of whom have gone on to distinguished astronomy careers of their own. At a rough guess, Jay taught 3000 students in his introductory astronomy courses over 50+ years.
If you asked Jay the most important book he ever read, he would probably say it was C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures.” In that 1959 book, Snow is alarmed by the intellectual gulf between scientists and nonscientists, and he advocates for a greater knowledge and understanding of science among the general public. That critical need to popularize science was always in Jay’s mind. Twenty years ago he began regularly teaching a course entitled, “Science, Pseudoscience and the Two Cultures,” a seminar tackling the critical and timely question of what is science, and what is not. During those classes, excited voices could be heard wafting down the hall of TPL in lively discussion and vigorous debate.
Like Snow, Jay believed in promoting science. Very early in his career, he recognized the lack of an authoritative, yet accessible, introductory astronomy textbook for non-science students. So he wrote one. And the rest, as they say, is history: his book became a standard text in the burgeoning number of introductory non-major astronomy courses at colleges and universities across the country. And, in the ensuing decades, Jay authored or co-authored dozens of textbooks and trade books on astronomy, physics, science pedagogy, and even on astronomical events portrayed in works of art. Up to a few weeks before his passing, he had been actively working on new editions of one of his textbooks, and on his Peterson Field Guide to Stars and Planets.
Jay regularly brought students and fellow astronomers — plus thousands of pounds of equipment and his lucky orange pants — along with him around the world, to observe 75 solar eclipses, 36 of them total. Up to the end of his life, he was making plans to travel to eclipses this year and in 2024. Jay would never forgive me if I didn’t remind you about total eclipses and why they’re so special. They occur when the Moon is aligned precisely between the Sun and the Earth, blocking our view of the Sun’s yellow disk, and briefly allowing us to observe the corona, the Sun’s hot, tenuous outermost region. Studying the corona during these precious few minutes was Jay’s longtime scientific specialty. For the students who accompanied him, these trips were a highlight of their time at Williams, and never to be forgotten.
Jay’s obituary by the College, along with those in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Economist, and elsewhere, detail his many achievements and honors. He was named a Fellow of the American Astronomical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society, and the Royal Astronomical Society, among others. For his last award, just days before his passing, Jay travelled to a dinner in Washington, D.C., where he was named a Sigma Xi Fellow, in recognition of his 50 years leading the Williams chaperons of Sigma Xi, unwavering in his encouragement of students to pursue scientific research as a career. But of all Jay’s honors, the one I find most fitting is the naming of an asteroid after him — formally, “Asteroid 5100 Pasachoff” — a 7-mile-wide space rock that has been and will be orbiting the Sun for eons — that’s enduring recognition.
Jay Myron Pasachoff was born in Manhattan, N.Y., on July 1, 1943. In the first grade, he protested being given picture books, demanding to be given real books. When he as 7 years old, he appeared on a famous radio show, “Quiz Kids.” I wish we could hear a recording of that!
Jay cherished his lifelong friendships: he attended every reunion of his 6th grade class at PS 114 in the Bronx, as well as his Bronx High School of Science reunions. He’s also been described as the glue of his Harvard graduating class of 1963, serving as the editor of their semi-annual newsletter for 17 years. And, wherever in the world you were planning to go, it was a virtual certainty that Jay would know someone there you could look up.
After earning his bachelor’s degree at Harvard, Jay continued there for his master’s, and then his PhD, which received in 1969. After three years of post-doctoral work at Harvard and Caltech, Jay came here to Williams.
When I arrived 7 years later, I remember how kind Jay was to my young family: for example, I’ll never forget that soon after we moved into our house, the microwave suddenly quit. I happened to mention this on the phone to Jay, and within 10 minutes, there he was in our driveway with a working microwave he happened to have. And, over the years, he and Naomi included our family in celebrations of Passover and the High Holidays; Steve and I have fond memories of endless food, joyful singing — on key and off — and children laughing.
Finally, Jay was a great aficionado of the double dactyl verse form, 8 lines containing double dactyls in each line. A dactyl has one long and 2 short syllables — as in “Jupiter,” or “Mercury.” A double dactyl would be “infinite universe.” Jay noted with pleasure that all of his family members’ names were double dactyls: El-o-ise Pasachoff, Deb-o-rah Pasachoff, and, fortuitously, Na-o-mi Pasachoff. As for himself, he wrote:
Jay Myron Pasachoff,
Dabbles in rhyme.
Solar eclipses and
Keep him contented the
Rest of the time.
- Jay Pasachoff, Who Pursued Eclipses Across the Globe, Dies at 79 The New York Times [subscription required]
- A celebration of Jay Pasachoff (1943-2022) Sky & Telescope
- The Death of Jay M Pasachoff Office of the President of Williams College
- Williams College professor Jay Pasachoff remembered as accomplished scientist and dedicated educator Berkshire Eagle [subscription required]
- Jay M. Pasachoff, Williams professor who saw eclipses around the world, dies at 79 Boston Globe [subscription required]
- Jay Pasachoff travelled the world to catch the Moon eclipsing the Sun The Economist [subscription required]
- Professor Jay Pasachoff, 1943-2022 Royal Astronomical Society
- Jay Pasachoff 1943-2022 SETI Institute
- AIP Oral History Recorded September 2021