As­tronomer headed UC Ob­ser­va­to­ries

Los Angeles Times - - OBITUARIES - By Elaine Woo elaine.woo@la­times.com Twit­ter: @ewooLATimes

Robert P. Kraft, an as­tronomer who helped il­lu­mi­nate some of the mys­ter­ies of the uni­verse and se­cure the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia’s promi­nence in the field of as­tron­omy through his guid­ance of ma­jor ob­ser­va­to­ries, has died at a Santa Cruz hos­pi­tal. He was 87.

His death was an­nounced Thurs­day by UC Santa Cruz, where he taught as­tron­omy and as­tro­physics for more than 25 years. The cause was not given.

Kraft was the for­mer direc­tor of Lick Ob­ser­va­tory on Mt. Hamil­ton near San Jose and over­saw UC’s role in the devel­op­ment of the state-of-the-art W.M. Keck Ob­ser­va­tory in Hawaii.

He also drove ef­forts in the late 1980s to cre­ate Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Ob­ser­va­to­ries, a mul­ti­cam­pus part­ner­ship that sup­ports as­tro­nom­i­cal re­search, man­ages the Lick Ob­ser­va­tory and over­sees the Keck with Caltech and NASA.

“Bob Kraft was a ma­jor player in a great era for as­tron­omy,” said Joseph Miller, an emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of as­tron­omy and as­tro­physics at UC Santa Cruz who suc­ceeded Kraft as direc­tor of UC Ob­ser­va­to­ries.

Cre­at­ing an or­ga­ni­za­tion to mar­shal the re­sources of the mas­sive UC sys­tem for as­tron­omy re­search was an am­bi­tious un­der­tak­ing be­cause of cam­pus ri­val­ries, but Kraft “con­vinced them this was for all their benefits and that all boats would be raised,” Miller said. “That was trans­for­ma­tive.”

Kraft was named direc­tor of Lick Ob­ser­va­tory in 1981 and be­came the head of UC Ob­ser­va­to­ries in 1988.

He also led ma­jor na­tional and in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions, serv­ing as pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can As­tro­nom­i­cal So­ci­ety from 1974 to 1976 and the In­ter­na­tional As­tro­nom­i­cal Union from 1997 to 2000.

As a scholar he was known for ground­break­ing re­search on no­vae, stars that greatly in­crease in bright­ness be­cause of mas­sive ex­plo­sions. Work­ing with two other sci­en­tists, he also con­ducted im­por­tant stud­ies on a cat­e­gory of stars called cepheid vari­ables that led to sig­nif­i­cant re­fine­ments in the meth­ods as­tronomers use to mea­sure dis­tances in space.

Robert Paul Kraft was born in Seat­tle on June 16, 1927, the only child of Vic­tor Paul Kraft, an auto me­chanic, and Vi­ola Eu­nice El­lis. His up­bring­ing was “unchurched,” he wrote in a au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal es­say for the An­nual Re­view of As­tron­omy and As­tro­physics in 2009, which al­lowed him the free­dom to think freely about mat­ters such as the ori­gins of the uni­verse.

As a child, he was pushed to­ward the arts rather than science: His mother, who was en­am­ored of child star Shirley Tem­ple, started him on mu­sic and act­ing lessons in grade school.

By the time he en­tered the Uni­ver­sity of Wash­ing­ton in 1944, he in­tended to study ed­u­ca­tion and be­come a teacher but wound up ma­jor­ing in math.

His in­tro­duc­tion to as­tron­omy came in his fresh­man year, when he signed up for a class that hap­pened to be taught by one of his math pro­fes­sors. He went on to earn a doc­tor­ate in as­tron­omy at UC Berke­ley in 1955.

“The idea that, in as­tron­omy, one can build a model and then test out the idea in the world of ob­ser­va­tion was an in­tox­i­cat­ing no­tion,” he wrote, “and I knew, with the fer­vor that only a young per­son can sum­mon, that this was the life for me.”

He was an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at In­di­ana Uni­ver­sity and the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago and worked at the Hale Ob­ser­va­tory in Pasadena be­fore join­ing the UC Santa Cruz fac­ulty in 1967.

He be­came a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus in 1992 but con­tin­ued to con­duct re­search, most re­cently on the age of the stars in the dense group­ings called glob­u­lar clus­ters. Although it re­mains an un­solved prob­lem, Kraft found vary­ing chem­i­cal com­po­si­tions that could sug­gest the stars were not all born at the same time.

“Right to the end,” Miller said, “he was at the very fore­front of re­search.”

Kraft was mar­ried for nearly 60 years to Ros­alie Ann Kraft, who died in 2009. His sur­vivors in­clude two sons, Ken­neth and Kevin, and a grand­son.

Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia

‘A MA­JOR PLAYER’ Kraft, a Seat­tle na­tive, was known for his ground­break­ing

re­search on no­vae.

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