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A Source of Light Science: Inventive JHU physicist Bill Fastie gave our world a different way of looking at others. And now, as retirement nears, he looks back at his own.


Bill Fastie was just out of high school when he did his first physics experiment. He went around Baltimore with an instrument called a transmission diffraction grating -- a flat piece of glass with lines on it -- and aimed it at every neon sign he saw. From that he learned many had no neon gas in them. They were charged with argon or mercury gasses instead.

"But they were still called neon signs!"

Even today, at 80 years old, his final retirement from Johns Hopkins University approaching at the end of this month, Fastie conveys the flavor of his reaction: the exhilaration of his discovery colliding with the indignation at having his expectations undermined. It was Fastie's first eureka moment.

"I was 17 years old and hooked for life," he says.

The neon experiment was a small lift. But maybe not so small for a kid. Others would follow, discoveries that would make Fastie's name renowned in physics and astronomy, and eventually make Hopkins itself a research leader in both disciplines.

But there also would be disappointments, and here and there a failure. The most significant of these was the blurred vision of the Hubble Space Telescope, launched with great fanfare in 1990. Its problems threatened to undermine Fastie's reputation and robbed him of precious time to carry out the search that consumed his later years -- for another planet in a nearby solar system.

The single insight that made Fastie's name familiar among physicists throughout the world came routinely. There was no bolt from the blue. It kind of insinuated itself into his thought process during a discussion with a colleague at Leeds and Northrup, the Philadelphia instrument company where he was working in 1948. They were designing a spectrometer, an instrument for measuring the spectrum of a light source.

"I suggested we use one larger mirror rather than two [the standard for such machines], which would have to be adjusted to each other," he recalls. "It would be a more stable and rugged spectrometer."

At first it seemed just a deft way to improve a piece of hardware. But it did more. It adapted the spectrometer for space flight -- long before space flight was even on the horizon.

Within two years Leeds and Northrup had produced three such single-mirror spectrometers. Fastie, who had been hired two years earlier from the Hopkins physics department, returned to the university, where he was urged to publish a paper about his instrument. He would call it the Fastie Spectrometer. What else?

Such papers in scientific journals are the way scientists tell the world what they've done and keep up with what's going on in their disciplines. Fastie has published 84 scientific papers in his career. This one, in 1952, would be his third. He was determined to be careful; he wanted to be certain not only that he explained it clearly, but that he was the first to come up with the idea of the single-mirror spectrometer. So he asked around.

Nobody had heard of anybody else doing it. He looked in journals and found nothing. He was ready to send his paper off when he met a graduate student named Claud Rupert who remembered an article in a German physics magazine, published in 1902 -- a dismissive critique by one very influential scientist of the invention of another. The invention was a single-mirror spectrometer. The inventor was Hermann Ebert.

"I learned that I had reinvented the Ebert spectrometer," Fastie wrote years later in an article in Physics Today.

To this day in Baltimore, the instrument is referred to as the Ebert Spectrometer; Fastie will have it no other way. Elsewhere it is called the Fastie-Ebert Spectrometer, or the reverse. Sometimes it's just the Fastie Spectrometer.

And Hermann Ebert would be stunned to learn of the purpose to which their invention would be put.

The idea came to Fastie one night in 1957 as he stood outside his home with his wife Frances and watched the first satellite -- the Soviet Sputnik -- pass overhead. At that moment he suddenly knew two things: why he had reinvented the Ebert Spectrometer, and where he would send it. Eureka!

Two years later, in 1959, his machine was launched into space from Ft. Churchill, on the southern shore of Hudson's Bay. Its mission: to measure the ultraviolet, or nonvisible, light of the Aurora Borealis for the first time.

Since then it has gone into space about 30 times. It reached Mars in 1969 aboard the space craft Mariner, went into orbit and operated for 11 years. By analyzing the light emerging from the surface and atmosphere, it perceived a dry river bed, and proved that water once ran across the surface of the Red Planet.

"It flew by Venus [1978] and found oxygen in the atmosphere," Fastie says, "but oxygen which doesn't arise from the presence of water on the planet." It circled Venus, sending back data, for 15 years.

A year ago a Fastie-Ebert Spectrometer reached Jupiter midway out in the solar system. It was launched at Cape Canaveral in 1989, aboard the space ship Galileo. It transmitted information that could allow scientists to assert that Jupiter was emitting some heat and light from itself, not just as a reflection of the sun. The machine's still out there, in orbit, still at work.

Personal space

Bill Fastie is a huge, rangy man with ropey arms and legs like redwood trees. His hands and feet are enormous. He stands 6-foot-4. He's mostly bald, and has a snowy beard that flows from the tip of his chin up the sides of his head and encircles ears as big as the shells of quahogs. Big as they are, those ears don't serve him too well these days, and are plugged with devices to amplify sound for him. He views the world through wire-rimmed glasses. He communicates with a voice that suggests he swallowed a drum. He has had two heart attacks and a triple bypass. But it has not reduced him by much: He still has an exceptional physical presence.

Fastie, a widower since 1975, is one of those rare men who enjoys cooking for himself. He usually gets up around 8 a.m. and makes his breakfast. Then he works in his vegetable garden, out behind the scrub that borders his well-groomed lawn that sprawls over three and a half acres of the Greenspring Valley. In the cold months he stacks wood. On Saturdays he goes to the Hamilton Street Club for lunch and conversation.

Most days he visits his lab in the sub-basement of the physics building, has lunch at the faculty club, or visits his older sister in her Towson nursing home.

In the evening he watches a little TV. "I find very few shows I enjoy anymore."

One exception is "Third Rock from the Sun."

Fastie lives alone in a chocolate-colored house that used to be a stable. It has new cedar shingles on its roof, a downstairs floor of Pennsylvania blue stone (which is really gray).

It is an uncluttered space that reflects the uncluttered mind of its owner, who sprawls in jeans and an old sweater across a chair in his austere living room, a room ornamented by a few Inuit carvings from northern Canada, and large abstract paintings. Two are by a Baltimore painter, Shelby Shakelford.

"She's dead," he says, in answer to a question about Shakelford, then adds, "Almost everybody's dead. At least everybody I know."

Fastie doesn't seem morose about that situation. Occasionally his humor turns on it. He refers to a friend he invited to his big birthday bash on the Hopkins campus Nov. 21:

"He couldn't come. He died last week. Some excuse, huh?"

The birthday party was held in the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy, right across from the Space Telescope Science Institute. It drew scores of Fastie's friends, former students and colleagues, luminaries of science, from all over the world.

They made speeches and honored the man who in the late 1950s and early 1960s nudged the Hopkins physics department into space research. Fastie had the ideas and the instrument to implement them. He got the money in grants fron NASA. And he carried everyone with him.

"It was his enthusiasm," says astronomer Arthur F. Davidsen, a former protege. "He got a fledgling program off the ground in the Sixties and Seventies, got the financing to launch small experiments on sounding rockets, initially to look at comets and study the upper atmosphere."

From there it was off to outer space. Paul Feldman, current chairman of the Hopkins physics and astronomy department, agrees that had Bill Fastie not been on the campus then, Hopkins would probably not be the renowned center of astro-physical research it is today. Had Bill Fastie not been on the campus, there wouldn't be a Space Telescope Science Institute there either.

Fastie has almost never been without a lab at Hopkins. He kept one even after he retired the first time at 66. That was in 1982, but he continued working anyway. There was plenty to do: Fastie had been one of 10 scientists chosen by competition in 1977 to advise NASA on the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, which went up in the spring of 1990.

It was his responsibility to assure that the company building the telescope mirrors, Perkin-Elmer, did it right. It didn't. After the launch it was learned that the primary mirror didn't work the way it was supposed to. The Hubble went up myopic. Fastie was covered with chagrin.

Within a week, he understood what went wrong.

"Perkin-Elmer made a stupid mistake and covered it up," he said in an interview three years after the event. "I would like to have caught them at it. I keep searching my soul asking, 'Could I have found it out?' I keep wishing I had been a lot smarter than I am. My consolation is there were a lot of other people who were blind-sided, too."

There was never any official criticism of Fastie in this matter. Perkin-Elmer's testing data, which would have revealed the flaw, was not made available to him, nor to many other people.

It was a deception that cost the company millions of dollars in fines. But it might have cost Bill Fastie more. He had scheduled 100 hours of research time on the telescope, but was unable to start using it until the mirrors were fixed three years later.

That is a long time to wait for a 72-year-old scientist eager to get on with his search for an undiscovered planet. His planet still hasn't been found.

Modest beginnings

William G. Fastie was born Dec. 6, 1916, in a rowhouse near Loudon Park Cemetery. He traveled from there across town to the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins. He has been to many parts of the world, but that was probably the longest journey of his life.

Fastie was an unremarkable student at Catonsville High School, but managed to graduate.

"I got so bored in high school that I didn't study at all. I got very poor grades."

His mind was on other things. He took a college-level night course in physics at a local high school. It was sponsored by Hopkins, part of a New Deal program for students who couldn't afford to go to college. It was there he did his neon sign experiment. He eventually made it into Hopkins as an undergraduate.

Then, in 1937, he won a scholarship to study physics in the graduate school. He went there immediately, but left in 1946 for Leeds and Northrup before getting a degree.

His high school diploma was the last academic credential he was ever to earn.

Remaining a professor without degree for his entire academic life is one of the anomalies of Bill Fastie's career. But it's not something he's ashamed of. On the contrary, he seems aware it sets him apart, suggesting strongly that he has something extra special to offer Hopkins. Else, how could he survive in an atmosphere so consumed with the embroidery of resumes, the ornamentation of academic credentials? How else could he have become a mentor to Ph.D.'s?

But survive he did, and the only obeisance to academic protocol ever imposed upon him had to do with his title. For 46 years, Fastie was officially an adjunct professor. This is a title given by universities to people who teach part time. They labor within the academy, but are not really of it.

On one occasion, Fastie says, he was appointed research professor. But he enjoyed the title only briefly, until the dean was reminded that it was reserved at most universities for Nobel Prize winners.

It was back to adjunct professor. Adjunct professor of research, that is.

Through all that time, Fastie worked on his machines and space shots. He never taught a course, nor ever took a course in astronomy. He admits he never has understood theoretical physics much. He is far removed from Einstein in this regard. He is not an intellectual in the sense that word is usually understood. He speaks no languages other than English. Besides "a few novels," he consumes almost exclusively scientific journals, mostly on physics and optics. There are few books evident in his house.

"Reading was not my greatest pleasure. I like to garden. I like to sail."

He still does much of the former, but hasn't had his boat in the water for years. He keeps it outside in a shed, a 60-year-old, 23-foot yawl.

He likes to do things with his hands. He describes himself as an experimental scientist.

Which means?

"You have a problem. You come up with a solution. You build it, or carry out an experiment with existing equipment. Then you write a paper."

That's the drill, and it has carried him far.

Fastie's long search for a new planet is being carried on by his old team, headed by Hopkins astronomer Holland Ford. Ford has shifted the direction of the work. The team is looking not for the planet itself, but for a brown dwarf, a kind of stillborn star.

"We think brown dwarfs will be excellent places to find planets," he says.

A number of new planets have been discovered in recent years, or at least very strong evidence of their existence has been advanced. Still, none have been seen or photographed ("imaged") and that is what Fastie had been trying to do.

But now his quest is over. Energetic as he is, he is too old to do intensive research, and the years lost owing to the Hubble flaw were precious ones.

Fastie hoists his massive arms in the air, and lets them drop, as if suddenly they have become very, very heavy.

"It's the way the world works," he says.

Which is not to say it's all over for Bill Fastie. Now that he's out of the physics and astronomy business, he can put more time into his invention.

Maybe a better word is "improvement." For that seems to be what he has done -- again. What he has improved, or invented, is a new kind of automobile cruise control. It's one a driver operates with his feet, instead of his hands. Fastie thinks it will sweep the market, and earn millions of dollars.


Voyages of the Fastie-Ebert Spectrometer

1948: Bill Fastie develops a single-mirror spectrometer, an instrument that measures the spectrum of a light source

1959: Spectrometer launched into space to measure for the first time the ultraviolet light of the Aurora Borealis

1968: Makes the first measurement of the ozone in Earth's upper atmosphere

1969: Detects a dry river bed on Mars, proving water once ran across its surface

1978: Finds oxygen in Venus' atmosphere

1995: Reaches Jupiter and transmits information that could help scientists determine that the planet was emitting heat and light itself rather than only reflecting it from the sun

Pub Date: 12/03/96

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