Former Tech president dies

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Stirling Colgate was nothing if not controversial in the Socorro community. People loved him and hated him — but there is no denying he left a mark, and as a founding father of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, was possibly even responsible for the biggest population growth the community has ever seen.

Colgate died Dec. 1 at his home near Los Alamos where he spent his most recent years.

Born in 1925 in New York City, Colgate grew up in Morristown, N.J. His older brother developed asthma and was sent west to the Los Alamos Ranch School. Because his brother adjusted well to his new surroundings, Colgate was sent there, too, from 1939 to 1942.

He went on to spend three years in the Merchant Marines from 1943 to 1945. He attended Cornell University and received his Ph.D. in physics in 1951.

During a 2011 interview with the New Mexico Tech alumni newsletter, Pay Dirt, Colgate said he was 13 or 14 when he realized that answering the “What makes the universe work?” question was to be his life’s work.

“He did physics every single day of his life,” Colgate’s son Art said. “Most of his life he was in astrophysics.”

Stirling’s theories were not always well accepted in the scientific community; sometimes he was ignored and laughed at, but most of the time even his controversial ideas were proven correct in the long run.

In 1959, Art said, Stirling originally proposed the supernova theory to explain the origin of neutrinos, tiny subatomic particles. It was not until Supernova 1987A was discovered that the scientific community accepted that neutrinos came from supernovas.

Stirling was in the first group of physicists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, where he stayed from 1952 to 1964.

From 1965 to 1975 Sterling served as president of New Mexico Tech. While there, he was a favorite of students, Art, said.

“He was open with all students,” Art said. “He took time with all students to encourage their studies.”

Stirling’s big project at Tech, Art said, was to digitize astronomy. He was instrumental in the creation of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Stirling moved to Los Alamos National Labs in 1975. Even after he moved to Los Alamos, Art said, Sterling continued his projects with NRAO.

“He was just a real major force here,” Art said.

Stirling also filed hundreds of patents during his life, including designs in everything from oil well drilling to thermodynamics, geophysics and atomic research, Art said. He was involved in multiple projects across the world from geophysics to engineering.

In Iceland, Art said, Stirling helped protect a harbor from lava with a plan to redirect the flow using water sprayed from ships. And for three years, in the name of research, he flew his airplane into tornados to place students’ instrument panels inside them.

In 1973, Stirling started the Sodium Dynamo Project at New Mexico Tech to explain the origin of astrophysical magnetic fields, research he was still working on at the time of his death. To test his theories, he built a dynamo designed to mimic the inner workings of planets and stars.

The Sodium Dynamo Project uses sodium, a metal that melts below the boiling point of water and is very electrically conductive. Because of these properties, it can be used in a liquid state under laboratory conditions to model the dynamos present in the cores of astrophysical bodies, said Tim Hankins, professor emeritus of physics at New Mexico Tech. A dynamo generates electric current and magnetic fields; a hydroelectric power generator is an example of a dynamo. Astrophysical dynamos generate the magnetic fields associated with planets and stars, including black holes.

At the Tech Dynamo Site, Stirling and his colleagues worked in a World War II vintage Quonset hut located among other antiquated buildings and rock-studded fields near the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center west of the main campus. The Dynamo Site serves as the storage site for much of the surplus atmospheric research apparatus,

Stirling had reputation for eccentricity, and his exploits are legendary.

He was known to fly his plane into the Socorro airport in winter, and start driving his Ford Bronco toward the observatory. When the Bronco could go no further because of the snow, he would unload his snowmobile, and when the snowmobile could travel no more, he would finish the journey on his cross-country skis to arrive in time to make tea and settle in for a night of observing the sky.

A local memorial service for Stirling Colgate will be held at 5 p.m. on Jan. 14 at the Old Town Bistro. Friends and associates are invited, Art said.

Valerie Kimble contributed to this report.