Donald Osterbrock, 82; modest scholar of the heavens studied sun, Milky Way

Times Staff Writer

Donald E. Osterbrock, one of the leading astronomers of the late 20th century who helped pioneer the use of basic physics to understand processes of the sun and the shape of the Milky Way galaxy, has died. He was 82.

Osterbrock, the former director of the Lick Observatory, collapsed while strolling across the UC Santa Cruz campus Thursday. Paramedics arrived within minutes but were unable to save him, according to campus spokesman Tim Stephens. The cause of death has not been determined.

Among other things, Osterbrock was renowned for discovering internal processes that explained how the sun kept its size and shape. He also showed how convective forces could explain the seemingly anomalous fact that the sun’s corona is hotter than its surface.

He mapped out the star-forming regions of the Milky Way galaxy, and by doing so proved that Earth’s home galaxy is shaped like a spiral.

The star-forming regions “were in a spiral distribution, so we must be in a spiral galaxy,” said Joseph Miller, a former student and current professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz.


Osterbrock’s book, “The Astrophysics of Gaseous Nebulae and Active Galactic Nuclei,” has become a standard textbook for student astronomers the world over, according to Miller. Osterbrock retired in 1992, but continued to work in his campus office.

“His mind was active and alert right to the end,” Miller said. Miller, the director of the Lick Observatory for 14 years until 2005, said he and Osterbrock attended a lecture on campus the day before he died.

“His path-breaking research covered an impressive range of subjects,” said George Blumenthal, acting chancellor at UC Santa Cruz. “He was also an amazing teacher, and his former graduate students comprise a significant part of the leadership of American astronomy today. I had enormous admiration for him -- we will all miss his wisdom and humanity.”

Osterbrock was born and raised in Cincinnati and earned his doctorate in astronomy from the University of Chicago. He came to UC Santa Cruz in 1972 after holding faculty positions at Caltech and the University of Wisconsin. He served as director of the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose from 1973 to 1981.

Osterbrock was also instrumental in the process that led to the construction of the giant Keck telescopes in Hawaii.

He received numerous awards and prizes, including lifetime achievement awards from the American Astronomical Society and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. In 1997, the Royal Astronomical Society awarded him the Gold Medal, its highest honor and an award rarely given to an American.

An asteroid was named after Osterbrock in 1996.

In the last years of his life, he turned his interests to writing histories of astronomy. He was the author, co-author or editor of 12 books and 150 scientific papers.

He and his wife, Irene, were married 54 years. The couple had three children. Irene Osterbrock said she had not decided when a funeral service would be held.

“It was a very good and rewarding marriage,” she said Friday.

Despite his many accomplishments, Osterbrock remained unassuming and concerned about the welfare of individual students.

“He was what you don’t hear people say much anymore, a real gentleman,” Miller said. “He never had harsh words for anybody.”