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Ronald Allen, astrophysicist at Space Telescope Science Institute for 30 years, dies

Ronald Allen had his eyes on the stars and on the ground.
Ronald Allen had his eyes on the stars and on the ground.

While serving a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, where he eventually became a professor and chairman of the institution’s astronomy department from 1969 to 1985, Ronald J. Allen developed an interest in a more terrestrial undertaking: sheep herding.

So Dr. Allen went to a local school and earned a diploma as a shepherd. One year after Dr. Allen moved his family to Phoenix in Baltimore County, his wife, Janice R. Allen, surprised him with two breeding ewes for his 51st birthday in 1991 and fenced off one acre of land for the sheep. Two acres of their five-acre property is now home to nine ewes, four rams and five lambs.

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“It doesn’t go with him when you picture an astrophysicist, but he found the fact that the sheep had a life that depended on the seasons and knew what they needed, he just loved it,” she said, adding that her husband was an active member of the Maryland Sheep Breeders Association and participated several times in the annual Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. “I think it grounded him somehow.”

Dr. Allen, who spent 30 years as a research scientist and radio astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, died Aug. 8 at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore of a staph infection. He was 79.

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Dr. Allen was the middle child of three born to Arthur Allen, a financial adviser, and the former Lillian Brown, a day care center operator. Born and raised in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada, he took up skiing and fishing, although he enjoyed the former more than the latter.

Dr. Allen graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Saskatchewan in 1961 and a doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1967. His first postdoctoral fellowship took place at the Observatory of Meudon (now known as the Paris Observatory) in Montparnasse, France, for two years before he left for the Netherlands.

Before graduating from MIT, Dr. Allen met the former Janice Nielsen at a wedding of mutual friends in 1965, but only exchanged pleasantries. When the friends returned from California in 1966, they invited her and Dr. Allen to a Boston Pops Orchestra concert. At first, Ms. Nielsen resisted the set-up, but changed her mind because she wanted to see her friend.

“But we had a good time,” said Mrs. Allen, who married Dr. Allen in January 1967 in Carlisle, Massachusetts. “And then he asked me out to dinner and one thing led to another, and I realized that this man was really devoted. … I just fell in love with him.”

After leaving the Netherlands in 1985, Dr. Allen chaired the astronomy department at the University of Illinois for four years. He then joined the Space Telescope Science Institute in 1989 and was also an adjunct professor and graduate lecturer at the Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Mrs. Allen said her husband enjoyed teaching students and frequently repeated a personal mantra to them: “Always do the physics first.”

Dr. Allen’s specialty was galactic spiral structure, and he was published in 18 invited review papers (16 as the first author), more than 100 papers in refereed journals (33 as the first author), and more than 66 papers in conferences and media (24 as the first author), according to his biography at the Space Telescope Science Institute.

Before Dr. Allen retired last December, Mrs. Allen said, her husband had recently been spending a lot of time studying whether OH radicals could be employed as tracers for molecular gas.

“He would say over and over again, ‘I am so lucky that I get paid to do what I love to do,’ ” Mrs. Allen said. “His research has sort of come full circle because his Ph.D. adviser at MIT [Alan H. Barrett] discovered the OH molecule and was very famous for that. And Ron was finishing up his career working on the importance of this OH molecule in finding out other information about spiral structure in galaxies.”

Michael Busch, a student pursuing a doctorate at Johns Hopkins, said he first met Dr. Allen in 2016 as a student in his course on applying mathematics to Fourier optics. He then spent summer of 2017 working with Dr. Allen as part of a research rotation.

“Ron was a very easy guy to work with,” said Mr. Busch, who wrote a tribute to Dr. Allen on Facebook. “You could ask him a dumb question, and he would say, ‘That’s a great question,’ and then explain why that happened. He knew where to start you off and then lead you along. Every week, he would check in with you and explain physics in a way where it wasn’t like a classroom instruction, but an appreciation for physics. Through that sort of perspective, he would excite his students into doing research, and I really appreciated that perspective.”

Mr. Busch said he accompanied Dr. Allen on trips to the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope at the Green Bank Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, and several domestic and international conferences. He credited Dr. Allen with introducing him to a kangaroo burger in Australia and recalled a memorable time in France.

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“I was kind of like a fish out of water because I don’t speak French and I didn’t know really where I was going,” Mr. Busch said. “He would say, ‘Let’s just sit down at this cafe, and I’ll order everything. I speak French.’ I was like, ‘I didn’t know you speak French.’ And he would tell me, ‘Oh yeah, this place has some great fish.’ I was like, ‘What? How do you know this? We’re in the south of France.’ But he just knew culture and regions and geography, and he had an appreciation for a lot of things like that. He would share his knowledge of the world.”

Dr. Allen was cremated, and his remains will be buried at St. John the Evangelist Cemetery in Hydes. A memorial service will be planned.

In addition to his wife, Dr. Allen is survived by a daughter, Melanie McConkey of Arlington, Massachusetts; two sons, Matthew Allen of Jarrettsville and Stefan Allen of Catonsville; one brother, Anthony Allen of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada; and seven grandchildren.

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