Planetary Sciences Tribute

F. Curtis Michel (1934–2015)

A veteran Air Force pilot who cofounded the Space Science Department at Rice University, Michel contributed to high-energy astrophysics, space plasma physics, and planetary science.

By Paul A. Cloutier, Alexander J. Dessler, Thomas W. Hill, and Richard A. Wolf

F. Curtis Michel. Credit: Jeff Fitlow, Rice University
F. Curtis Michel. Credit: Jeff Fitlow, Rice University

Professor emeritus Curt Michel died on 26 February 2015 at the age of 80. As we mourn the personal loss, we celebrate the career of our esteemed colleague.

Curt received his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in January 1962, with a thesis in experimental nuclear physics, under the direction of Thomas Lauritsen, William Fowler, Charles Barnes, and Felix Boehm. Following a research fellowship at Caltech, he became one of the four founding faculty members of the nascent Department of Space Science at Rice University in 1963. He was instrumental in setting the tone for the new department through a comprehensive and challenging course curriculum and a devotion to cutting-edge research.

An Air Force jet pilot veteran with 500 hours of flight time, Curt was selected by NASA as one of six scientist-astronauts in 1965. He left that program in 1969 when it became evident that he would not be selected for spaceflight. He returned full time to Rice, where he chaired the renamed Space Physics and Astronomy Department from 1974 to 1979 and was named the Andrew Hayes Buchanan Professor of Astrophysics in 1974.

World Traveler

Curt traveled widely. He was a visiting scientist at the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy in Cambridge in the summers of 1970 and 1972, a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 1971–1972, and a Guggenheim Fellow at Ecole Polytechnique in 1979–1980. He was an Alexander von Humboldt Scientist at the Max-Planck-Institut für Kernphysik in Heidelberg in 1983–1984 and at the Max-Planck-Institut für Extraterrestrische Physik in Garching in 1994. He worked at the Solar Terrestrial Environment Laboratory at the University of Nagoya as a visiting professor in 2001–2002. Before embarking on each visit, Curt trained himself in the local language and culture.

But Houston was his home, and Curt was a familiar intellectual presence on the Rice campus. He was an early and active member of Scientia, an Institute for the History of Science and Culture. His primary research field was high-energy astrophysics, in particular, the physics of pulsars. He wrote a definitive book on that subject, Theory of Neutron Star Magnetospheres (University of Chicago Press, 1991). But his interests and his talents were not confined to a single topic.

Scientific Pioneer

He collaborated widely and contributed significantly to a variety of studies, ranging from solar wind structure and dynamics to solar wind interaction with the Moon and the unmagnetized planets Venus and Mars to the magnetospheres of Earth and Jupiter and the rings of Saturn. He pioneered the theoretical study of nonneutral plasmas observed in the laboratory and thought to exist in astrophysical settings. He also pioneered the transfer of knowledge from solar system plasma studies to astrophysics, in particular the revolutionary concept, now gaining acceptance, that neutron stars have disks and/or planets that play observable roles in pulsar phenomenology. Most recently, he argued persuasively that the Voyager 1 spacecraft did indeed leave the heliosphere and enter interstellar space in August 2012, a point that was controversial at the time. Curt searched for the truth and never feared controversy.

Powerful Roles

Curt retired from the Rice teaching faculty in 2000 but continued as an active researcher and an indispensable mentor until the end of his life. We close with a selection of unattributed quotes extracted from the many tributes that we received from former colleagues and students. These messages offer insight into the powerful roles Curt played in so many lives, as scientist, teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend:

  • I am not alone in considering him the smartest guy in the room. Curt was a joy to be around—insightful and able to explain his novel thoughts in clever ways. He was the source of imaginative, useful ideas that he delivered with humor and panache. [From a colleague]
  • He taught me how to cut through the obfuscation and drive straight to the heart of a physics problem, and to do so with grace, good will, and good humor. I will never forget those lessons, or the gentleman who taught them by his good example. [From a student and colleague]
  • He was one of the smartest people I have ever known. His knowledge of physics was amazing. He is most famous for his work in astrophysics, particularly pulsars, but he somehow also mastered nuclear physics, general relativity, plasma physics, space science, numerical methods, and data analysis. He could do it all. [From a colleague]
  • I think the best lectures I heard at Rice were in Curt’s general relativity course. Someone asked him how gravitational waves were created. He said one way would be for a mass, say a star, to disappear. When asked how that could happen, Curt said: “Well, you’ve got this dragon in another universe that reaches through and goes Snap!” [From a student]
  • Curt could stand at the blackboard with a piece of chalk, arm dangling vertically. With a single sweeping motion somehow involving his shoulder, he could repeatedly draw the most perfect freehand circles I have ever seen. Never have I seen another example of that amazing skill. [From a student]
  • He was a wonderful man, clever, inspired, provocative, funny, a great storyteller…, a mentor, and a gentleman. [From a colleague]

Curt is survived by his wife, Bonnie Hausman; his son, Jeffrey Michel, with grandsons Brent and Gregory; and his daughter, Alice Michel, with grandson Dexter Allen.

—Paul A. Cloutier, Alexander J. Dessler, Thomas W. Hill, and Richard A. Wolf, Professors Emeriti, Rice University, Houston, Texas; email: [email protected]

Citation: Cloutier, P. A., A. J. Dessler, T. W. Hill, and R. A. Wolf (2015), F. Curtis Michel (1934–2015), Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO039519. Published on 17 November 2015.

© 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0