James Elliot, 67; eminent astronomer helped students discover their potential

By Emma Stickgold
Globe Correspondent / March 7, 2011

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Back when Pluto was still considered a planet, and Saturn was thought to be unique for its rings, James Ludlow Elliot could be found peering through powerful telescopes and collecting data that helped make him one of the greats among modern observational planetary astronomers.

Aboard an airborne observatory in 1977, Dr. Elliot was part of the team that discovered that Uranus has rings. In 1988, he flew to a remote section of the Pacific Ocean to observe a celestial phenomenon known as occultation and discovered evidence that Pluto has an atmosphere.

And as director of MIT’s Wallace Astrophysical Observatory, he was an inspiration to many students, encouraging women in particular to pursue a field long dominated by men.

Dr. Elliot, a professor of planetary astronomy and physics at MIT, died Thursday at his home in Wellesley of complications of cancer. He was 67.

Dr. Elliot kept a white index card in his pocket and carried his favorite blue mechanical pencil with him so he could mark down notes to help keep his research on track.

“He was an observant person — very observant, very interested in the world around him, interested in how things works,’’ said his daughter Lyn of State College, Pa. “He was a very curious person, always interested in seeing things from many different sides, someone who was good at seeing multiple perspectives of a situation.’’

One of the top experts in his field, he was adept at explaining complex and often technical subjects in terms his audience could understand, said his daughter, who recalled many hours the two spent poring over her physics homework in high school.

“He was very generous with his time,’’ she said.

Longtime colleague Amanda Bosh said she left a note on the door of his MIT office when she was a student, asking to meet with him so she could discuss her interest in his field.

She received a quick response.

“He had a real special ability of recognizing and nurturing enthusiasm,’’ she said.

She took one of his signature courses on observational astronomy and later worked with him on several projects.

Dr. Elliot had a knack for helping students understand how to analyze their data, she said.

“I was in awe of all the things he could do,’’ she said.

Bosh recalled him speaking about the privilege it was to be an astronomer and the responsibility it carried.

Astronomy had no direct impact on people’s lives, he said, yet “we get grant money to pay for it — taxpayers help us to pay for it — so we had a real responsibility to learn new things and pass that on as well,’’ she said.

Heidi Hammel said she was the only undergraduate student in the first course Dr. Elliot taught at MIT, observational astronomy. She had signed up for it as an elective.

She considered dropping the course, but he encouraged her to stay, and she went on to become a renowned astronomer.

“He made you part of his team, working shoulder-to-shoulder, and he invested in us this trust,’’ she said.

At a time when not many women were enrolled at MIT, she said, “Jim would always say, ‘You can do this,’ ’’ Hammel said. “I didn’t get that from a lot of my other professors, I’ll tell you.’’

Dr. Elliot was born in Columbus, Ohio, and earned a bachelor’s in 1965 from MIT. He earned a doctorate in astronomy from Harvard University in 1972 and joined Cornell’s faculty in 1977. While at Harvard, Dr. Elliot met his wife, Elaine, a Tufts graduate student who was working at a Harvard office, his daughter said.

In 1977, aboard the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, he and his team used telescopic equipment to observe Uranus as it crossed in front of a star. They watched the pattern of the planet passing across the star, dimming its brightness, and observed symmetric dips that were the result of rings encompassing the planet.

Dr. Elliot was awarded a NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement, according to an obituary posted on the MIT website.

He returned to MIT in 1978, and became director of the Wallace Astrophysical Observatory.

With the Uranus discovery behind him, he looked for another challenge.

“We wanted to do something hard and the only thing left was Pluto,’’ he told the Globe in 1988.

Uncommon celestial events were among his specialties, in particular occultation, which occurs when one object is hidden by another that travels between it and the observer, allowing for measurements and analysis that are hard to otherwise come by.

In 1988, Pluto was expected to pass in front of a faint star, causing a shadow to sweep across Earth at a rate of more than 11 miles a second, and those were the conditions Dr. Elliot needed to learn more about this celestial body, whose exact size was still a matter of speculation.

Fourteen years later, Dr. Elliot and his team packed up cameras, telescopes, and computerized equipment and boarded the NASA jet Kuiper Airborne Observatory to travel to an area of the Pacific roughly 3,000 miles south of Hawaii to catch Pluto’s shadow in optimal viewing conditions.

Using eight telescopes, Dr. Elliot and his team observed the dimming of the star when Pluto passed in front of it on Aug. 20, 2002, and discovered that Pluto’s atmosphere was expanding. This seemed surprising to the team because they had thought it would shrink as it traveled farther from the sun.

When the starlight dimmed, and then about a minute later become visible once more, sounds of joy emanated from team members, according to a Globe article from the time.

“What this means is that Pluto has an atmosphere,’’ he told the Globe.

Bosh was on that flight and said Dr. Elliot took on the role of “the big-picture guy,’’ who led the team with an eye for detail and organization.

“For the longest time, it was considered impossible to have the precision you needed to predict those events,’’ Bosh said.

Pluto was considered the solar system’s ninth planet until 2006, when an international committee of astronomers decided that it was too small to be considered a planet.

Last year, an event to honor him, dubbed a “Jimboree,’’ was held at MIT and many students returned to share their memories of their experiences with a professor who had championed their careers.

Some students paid homage to his love of white index cards, writing notes of remembrances on them.

“So many students of his came back,’’ Bosh said. “He was so surprised by that, but I absolutely was not.’’

In addition to his daughter Lyn and his wife, Dr. Elliot leaves another daughter, Martha of Brooklyn, N.Y.; two sisters, Suzanne of New London, Conn., and Martha Bureau of Piedmont, Calif.; a brother, Tom, of Arlington, Va.; and a granddaughter.

A memorial service is being planned for this spring.