Atmospheric Sciences Tribute

Stanley “Stan” Ruttenberg (1926–2017)

This talented geophysicist, with his love of music, played key roles in the International Geophysical Year (1957–1958) and many other research programs, as well as in organizing a major music festival.


Stanley Ruttenberg
Stanley Ruttenberg Credit: Rebecca Ruttenberg

Stanley Ruttenberg, a scientist of truly remarkable breadth and accomplishments, died in Louisville, Colo., on 12 February 2017 at the age of 90. His career of more than 50 years stands as a testament to how much can be achieved for the geosciences by a dedicated, committed scientist, although he had no Ph.D. and occupied few positions of real administrative authority.

Stan’s career began conventionally enough with his attending Johns Hopkins University and then transferring to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a B.S. in physics in 1946. He followed that with an M.A. in physics at the University of California, Los Angeles. There he started to pursue a Ph.D., working initially in atmospheric electricity under Robert E. Holzer and participating in the marine expedition to the central Pacific known as Operation Capricorn. Ultimately, Stan’s irrepressible and wide-ranging interests diverted him from that endeavor but led to a different set of accomplishments that were surpassing in many ways.

Stan’s love of the outdoors led to more than just camping trips. With his talent for building things, he joined forces with his friend Dick Kelty to design a backpack carrying the Kelty name. His love of classical music, combined with his love of electronics, led to his tinkering with reel-to-reel tape decks. He used these to record the signal from an artificial aurora experiment in White Sands, N.M., for a fellow student’s Ph.D. project. He was invited into the home of Arnold Schoenberg because he had the equipment to play the composer’s studio recordings.

At the National Academy

Stan served at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington, D. C., from 1955 to 1964, where one of his early landmark achievements was to influence how scientists dealt with the research data gathered during the International Geophysical Year (IGY; 1957–1958). Although many remember those years for Sputnik, the first scientific satellites, the Van Allen radiation belts, and the Cold War, one of the lasting legacies of the IGY has been the World Data Center (WDC) system.

Stan at the time headed the program office of the IGY. Making use of that position, he worked with many others who recognized the consummate importance of preserving data for succeeding generations to establish the WDC-A and WDC-B (United States and Russia, respectively). Recalling the prescience of those early planners, Stan and Henry Rishbeth in a 1994 paper noted the expectation even in the 1950s that data centers “should be prepared to handle data in machine-readable format, which at that time meant punched card and punched tape.” Throughout his long career, Stan was a frequent adviser and overseer of the expanding and ever more comprehensive network of World Data Centers.

During his tenure at NAS, he served on the Committee for Polar Research, the Space Science Board, and the Geophysics Research Board. He served as executive secretary of the U.S. Committee for the International Years of the Quiet Sun and as secretary of the Panel on the World Magnetic Survey. While at NAS, Stan was also technical adviser for the award-winning film series Planet Earth and did so again when the series was updated in 1980–1985.

Invited to UCAR

Through the IGY, Stan met Walter Orr Roberts, solar physicist and president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) in Boulder, Colo., who invited Stan to become assistant to the president. Stan accepted in 1964 and stayed at UCAR in many capacities for the next 30 years, until his retirement.

Stan was the consummate facilitator, enabling scientists everywhere to meet, plan, and act. Among his many positions was secretary of Working Group 6 of the International Committee on Space Research, which held numerous meetings advocating advances in space science and instrumentation, leaving Stan to write and disseminate their reports, many of which were very influential. Ever the Renaissance man, Stan added an erudite preface, structured around the inspiring poetry of Lord Byron, to a lengthy report advocating oceanographic satellites (NASA/NOSS Science Working Group, edited by S. Ruttenberg, NCAR Technical Note 185+PRR, 1981).

One of the hallmarks of Stan Ruttenberg’s career was his willingness to let others take credit for the many achievements in which he had a significant role. By the early 1970s, leading atmospheric scientists had for years been advocating a major field campaign to understand and parameterize tropical convection within the Global Atmospheric Research Program (GARP). The resulting program in 1974, GARP Atlantic Tropical Experiment, or GATE, was staggering in its scope (39 ships and 13 aircraft). Stan’s behind-the-scenes, “leave few fingerprints” role in the success of this program was characteristic of the way he worked and only recently came to my full attention in researching records after his death.

Advocating for Gender Equality

It is not unusual today to bring graduate students into the field to help with research, but mainly as a learning experience. In 1974, the UCAR GATE student program was a true pioneering effort. Some 40 students were recruited to assist on ships or research aircraft and at the analysis center in Dakar, Senegal. Many of those students later became leaders.

Stan coordinated with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to oversee and fund the program. One of his decisions, perhaps obvious today but not in 1974, was to make this program open to qualified women and men equally. This met resistance, but according to Eugene Bierly (personal communication, 2017), the responsible NSF program manager at the time, Stan was “foot-stomping insistent” that women were to have an equal chance of being selected, and that is what happened. The precedents set by the UCAR program of including students at all in field campaigns as well as treating them equally regardless of gender are among the reasons that it is now second nature for faculty and agency program managers to leave a small place in their budgets for student participation.

Legacy of a Renaissance Man

Stan’s contributions to geophysics were legion. Outside of the sciences, he left a legacy as a Renaissance man as well. His contributions will be felt for many years to come, not least for his seminal role in bringing the music of Gustav Mahler to thousands through his leadership of the Colorado MahlerFest. This involved not only promoting performances of high quality but also enlisting Mahler scholars to prepare for performance a lesser-known realization of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. Stan also played a part in attracting world-renowned artists and scholars to many other MahlerFests. He considered his being chosen for the International Gustav Mahler Society Gold Medal his greatest honor, yet with characteristic modesty asked for the medal, which was awarded in 2005, to go to the Colorado MahlerFest itself.

Stan is survived by his two daughters, Alison and Rebecca, and will be missed by many.

—Edward Zipser (email: [email protected]), University of Utah, Salt Lake City

Citation: Zipser, E. (2018), Stanley “Stan” Ruttenberg (1926–2017), Eos, 99, Published on 21 March 2018.
© 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0