He has been described as a great innovator whose vision
helped scientists study the composition of objects in space, and
a leader who played a vital role in the success of Hopkins'
embryonic astrophysics program.
But, as he recalls the highlights of his career, William Fastie still shakes his head in wonder.
"How was I able to get along with all those brains that I was working with?" asks Fastie. "All of the people who grew into very prominent positions, why did they even have a desire to deal with me?
"I have no idea. It just seems like a little bit of magic," says the 80-year-old Fastie, who will retire at the end of December.
He first came to Hopkins in 1934 as a part-time student. The teen-ager was making $5 a week as an office worker in downtown Baltimore, answering phones by day and taking one night course a semester.
From that humble beginning, he forged a distinguished career in experimental optics, eventually designing a spectrograph that would become the key component in rocket- and space-borne telescopes. The spectrograph is still playing a major role today, as the Galileo spacecraft gathers historic data about Jupiter and its moons.
Fastie has accomplished his scientific feats without ever receiving a college degree, and he claims to understand only "simple arithmetic."
"I took a calculus class; I didn't understand much of it," he says.
Nevertheless, his accomplishments in the field were evidenced last month, when a symposium in his honor drew an international gathering of scientists at Hopkins.
Arthur Davidsen, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, says that Fastie's influence was critically important for the handful of young astrophysicists at Hopkins in the 1970s.
"He was a mentor to those of us who began the fledgling astrophysics program here at Hopkins," Davidsen says. "He was the glue that brought us together and somehow magically propelled us into the success we've enjoyed over the last two decades or so.
"He's a wonderful guy with great ideas and an incredible enthusiasm for research."
Davidsen and Fastie, along with former Johns Hopkins graduate student George Hartig, built a new telescope and spectrograph, which they launched on a rocket to take the first-ever ultraviolet spectrum of a quasar--extremely distant objects that look like stars when viewed through a conventional telescope but actually emit much more energy than an entire galaxy.
To understand important characteristics about stars, planets and galaxies, it is essential to observe such objects in ultraviolet light. Yet, Earth's atmosphere absorbs most UV light. Davidsen's observation of the quasar was the first time anyone had ever placed a telescope above the atmosphere and taken the UV spectrum of an object outside of our galaxy.
The achievement immediately established a name for Hopkins astrophysics, leading to other important research projects.
"I think it's fair to say we couldn't have done it without Bill Fastie," Davidsen said.
Also in the 1970s, while scientists were looking for a place to build the Hubble Space Telescope's nerve center, the Space Telescope Science Institute, Davidsen and Fastie successfully lobbied to have it constructed on the Hopkins campus. The university's emerging reputation in astrophysics played no small role in that successful effort.
Space Telescope's construction on campus forever changed the face of astrophysics at Hopkins, Davidsen said.
"What was really an outpost, sort of a little scout camp on the edges of astronomical civilization, has now blossomed into one of the major metropolises in the field," he said.
And it all goes back to those early days of success, in which Fastie was a central figure.
But, as Fastie tells the story, he was the beneficiary of good timing and a few crucial moments of inspiration.
For example, there was that moment when he dreamed up the design for a revolutionary spectrograph; intuition told him, in a flash, that it would be better than any other spectrograph, and he pursued it doggedly until it was finished. Then, there was that moment when he looked up into the sky one evening in 1957 and saw the Soviet satellite Sputnik passing overhead. In a flash, he just knew that he had unwittingly designed the perfect spectrograph for space research.
Fastie's love for science began in 1933, when he was taking college-level evening courses at a local high school. After class one night his physics teacher gave him a small diffraction grating, a thin sheet of plastic that, like a prism, breaks light into its individual colors. The colors identify which elements are present in the light, revealing what its source is made of.
He walked the city streets, looking at various neon signs through his diffraction grating. Fastie learned that some of the neon signs contained no neon at all, while others contained additional gases, such as mercury and sodium.
"I was 17 years old and hooked for life," he wrote in a 1990 autobiographical article about the spectrograph, which was published in the science magazine Physics Today.
The following year Fastie started attending night classes at Hopkins. After three years of night school, he had taken one course each in chemistry, physics, mathematics and English.
"I didn't know anything," he says. But others at Hopkins must have felt differently, because in 1937 Fastie received a scholarship in physics to attend graduate school.
After a year of graduate school, however, Fastie didn't feel that he was thriving academically, and he asked his adviser where he might look for work as a physicist.
"When you are taking graduate courses and you don't understand anything but elementary mathematics, you are in trouble," he says. "I thought surely they were going to just dump me after a year when they saw how badly I was doing in my courses."
To his astonishment, the department made him an instructor.
"I still didn't know anything, but I'm an instructor in physics," Fastie says.
Two years later he was hired as a research assistant to work on optical and infrared systems for war-related research.
Fastie soon became well known in the field, and in 1946 he went to work for a private research laboratory in Philadelphia. That was where he embarked on a project that would change his career. After Fastie developed a spectrometer that could be used to analyze the composition of steel during manufacturing, Hopkins took notice.
"People at Hopkins recognized how important the spectrometer was, and that I should come back to Hopkins and work on it," he says.
In 1951, he returned to Hopkins, and by the following year he had designed a revolutionary spectrograph, the ideal instrument for scientific research and manufacturing; it was more accurate, rugged and compact than conventional instruments.
But before he submitted a scientific paper about his spectrograph, he wanted to make sure no one had developed anything like it before. Fastie asked his colleagues at Hopkins and elsewhere--the biggest names in spectroscopy--whether they had ever heard of a similar design.
No one had.
However, a graduate student whose hobby was to read historic scientific papers on optics said he thought he remembered seeing something like it.
Sure enough, the student dug up the paper. In 1889, a young German scientist named Hermann Ebert had developed Fastie's spectrometer. But, after a famous spectroscopist of the day criticized the design and said the instrument wouldn't work, Ebert's innovation was ignored.
"It was exactly the spectrometer that I built," Fastie says.
A large market sprang up for the spectrometer, and Fastie spent the next several years designing different versions of his instrument for research. He also became a private consultant.
Then, one night in 1957, Fastie had a profound realization. He was standing in his backyard with his wife and three children when he saw Sputnik passing overhead. He knew right then and there that a new age of research had begun and that his spectrograph belonged in space.
Soon the Fastie-Ebert spectrometer was being used in rocket-borne telescopes and satellites. It flew on the Apollo 17 moon mission, where it was used to search for a lunar atmosphere and to study the moon's surface.
To get an idea of how important the instrument has been over the years, at the University of Colorado alone, no fewer than 18 graduate students have used the Fastie-Ebert spectrometer to conduct research for their theses, says Charles Barth, a professor at the university's Department of Astrophysical, Planetary and Atmospheric Sciences.
Barth has used the instrument on five planetary missions, including the Mariner missions to Venus and Mars.
He currently is using it on the Galileo spacecraft to study Jupiter and its moons. This month, when Galileo gathers historic data about the composition of the Jovian moon Europa, a Fastie spectrometer will be the workhorse behind the observations.
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