Paul D. Feldman, a retired Johns Hopkins professor who was an expert on comets, dies

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Paul D. Feldman's academic research focused on comets, planetary and satellite atmospheres, and astronomical instrumentation.

Paul D. Feldman, a retired Johns Hopkins professor of physics and astronomy who was an authority on comets and also played the cello, died of heart disease Jan. 26 at his Guilford home. The former Bolton Hill resident was 82.

“Paul was a titan in the planetary astronomy community,” said Harold A. “Hal” Weaver, a Johns Hopkins applied physics lab scientist. “He had an encyclopedic knowledge and was truly a Renaissance man.”


A university statement said: “He was principal investigator of a NASA-supported sounding rocket program and was responsible for more than 50 sounding rocket launches to study the Earth’s upper atmosphere, the aurora and the airglow, the atmospheres of comets and planets, the spectra of hot stars, and cosmic background radiation.”

Born in Brooklyn, New York, he was the son of Eastern European immigrants Mara Feldman, a homemaker, and her husband, Lazar Feldman, a traffic manager who oversaw the distribution of molasses.


He was a graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School and received a full scholarship to Columbia University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree and doctorate.

He met his future wife Joan I. Sharp at a party in the upper west side of New York City.

“Neither of us were officially invited and it was love at first sight on my part,” she said.

In a 2000 oral history, Professor Feldman recalled he had been a member of the junior astronomy club at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. He drew his own sky maps.

“I was really turned on by astronomy,” he said.

He joined the faculty of the department of physics and astronomy at the Johns Hopkins University in 1967 where he remained his entire career, including serving two terms as his department’s chair.

He was appointed professor emeritus in 2019.

His academic research focused on comets, planetary and satellite atmospheres, and astronomical instrumentation. An asteroid was named in his honor “for his numerous contributions in ultraviolet spectroscopy.”


Professor Feldman’s design and supervision of spacecraft instruments assisted the understanding of physical processes in the solar system.

“Paul has been a major presence in the department for many decades and served with great effectiveness and distinction as department chair during a critical period of departmental growth and reinvigoration,” said Dr. Timothy Heckman in a statement.

Dr. Heckman, a colleague and department chair also said, “Paul was really one of a kind, and his leadership, wit, and wisdom will be sorely missed.”

His wife said: “He was never pretentious. People liked his integrity and he never looked down on anyone. He never lost his temper and was a kindperson.”

Dr. Feldman was principal investigator for a program of comet studies, including Comet Halley from 1985 to1986.

He was also involved with the Rosetta Mission, a European Space Agency deep space probe to meet, orbit, study and land on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.


“It was fun being his graduate student,” said Dr. Weaver. “We worked rigorously during the day, but at night we might play pool and have a good meal.”

He was also an amateur musician and cello player.

Edie Stern, a friend and fellow member of his musical circle, said: “I tacked a note to the bulletin board at the Peabody Prep, ‘Mediocre violist looking for chamber group.’ Paul saw the note ... and he called me.

“Without even meeting each other first, we each agreed to find another violinist and get together. We played most Wednesday nights for the next 25 years, plus New Year’s Eves.”

“We met at each other’s homes if they had enough soundproofing and after we played for about 2½ hours, we ate dessert. No matter how gooey the chocolate cake, Paul ate it with a beer. We stayed friends for the rest of our lives,” Ms. Stern said.

She recalled that while he was at Columbia, he hosted a classical music radio program and he developed an encyclopedic knowledge of composers, repertoire, Köchel numbers, key signatures, performers, and recorded performances.


“This was terrific when he wanted to introduce us to a new piece to play,” Ms. Stern said. “It wasn’t so good when he thought we should be able to sight read the new piece at the lightning-fast tempo of the Guarneri Quartet.”

He brought his fellow musicians some less commonly played pieces by Mahler, Puccini, and Verdi.

“Paul had a good sheet music collection. Wherever he traveled around the world, he’d visit music shops and look for new works to bring back to the group,” she said. “Paul played ‘enthusiastically’ if not always expertly. He was a great counter and sight reader who rarely lost his place.”

Paul loved opera, especially Verdi, and most of all Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” He and his wife regularly went to New York to attend Metropolitan Opera performances, and they flew as far as London or Paris for a weekend just to see an opera.

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He also played tennis at Bolton Hill Swim and Tennis Club.

He loved foreign languages – he mastered French and Italian and had a knowledge of Russian.


He and his wife patronized the happy hour at La Cuchara and Clavel. He followed the Orioles.

He and his wife resided for 51 years on Park Avenue in Bolton Hill.

He was a longtime member of 14 West Hamilton Street Club and enjoyed birding and wine tasting.

A memorial service will be held at a later date.

Survivors include his wife of 56 years, Joan I. Sharp, a Bryn Mawr School teacher and Walters Art Museum staff member; two daughters, Katherine Feldman of Ellicott City and Marian Feldman of Baltimore; a sister, Florence Feldman Wood of Andover, Massachusetts; and four grandchildren.