Maverick Scientist and Instrument Builder James Westphal Dies

Press Release From: California Institute of Technology
Posted: Wednesday, September 15, 2004

PASADENA- James A. Westphal, who parlayed a bachelor's degree into a major scientific career as a professor at Caltech, a leader of one of the original instrument teams on the Hubble Space Telescope, the director of Palomar Observatory, and the co-discoverer of intricacies in the mechanisms that drive Old Faithful, died Wednesday, September 8, after a long illness. He was 74.

A native of Dubuque, Iowa, Westphal earned his bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Tulsa in 1954, a year after he went to work as geophysical research group leader at Sinclair Research Lab in Tulsa. In 1961 he took a job as senior engineer at Caltech and remained at the Institute for the remainder of his career. He was named associate professor of planetary science in 1971 and professor in 1976.

Westphal's mechanical genius was arguably the linchpin of many of the projects he took on after arriving at Caltech. Once explaining that his mechanical skills were hereditary--his father having been "a shade-tree mechanic of the first order"--Westphal first got into the business of scientific instrumentation right after high school, when he did well-logging in Texas and Gulf Coast oil fields. In fact, his work at Sinclair Research Labs involved devising unorthodox methods for oil discovery, and one of his discoveries of a new way of processing seismic data first brought him to the attention of Caltech professor Hewitt Dix, who is often considered the father of exploration geophysics.

Westphal arrived at Caltech initially on a four-month leave of absence to devise a data processor for Dix, but never left. He discovered that the academic freedom individual professors enjoy was amenable to his own predilections, so he soon began branching out to other areas of scientific investigation at Caltech. Before long, he had teamed up with Bruce Murray (later to become director of the Jet Propulsion Lab) to do thermal infrared scans of the moon in order to see if humans could even walk on the lunar surface without sinking below the surface. Westphal and Murray's work showed that rocky areas could be identified with the thermal imaging, which in turn led to the inference that the Apollo astronauts could safely walk on the dirt without sinking. Westphal and Murray also teamed up to do the first infrared imaging of Venus and Jupiter.

"He was the most talented instrument designer I ever knew at Caltech or at JPL," Murray said today. "That's why he could move through so many fields: he could figure out what was needed, and how to build it simply and cheaply."

Other projects at Caltech led to Westphal's being hired on permanently by Bob Sharp, who at the time was the geology division chairman. Westphal once said that he at first thought he was over his head at Caltech, but after deciding that everyone working at the Institute felt the same way, gave up his position at Sinclair and moved permanently to Pasadena.

In the following years Westphal involved himself in novel ways of studying Mount St. Helens volcanism, a way of creating a high-pressure aquarium for studies of deep-ocean animals, and instruments for tracking glacial ice flows and capturing starlight.

Caltech astronomers were pleased to discover that Westphal had an idea for a night-vision camera for the historic 200-inch Hale Telescope-at the time the largest optical telescope in the world-that could measure the brightness of galaxies with 20 times greater accuracy than possible up to that time. He built various instruments for the Hale Telescope, including a Silicon Intensified Target camera, which was a sort of transitional device between the photographic emulsion plates of the day and modern charged-coupled devices (CCDs) and which produced pictures with unparalleled clarity. The instrument is now in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum's collection.

Westphal and Jim Gunn (now at Princeton) recognized early that CCDs would revolutionize astronomy, and in the process of obtaining them for Palomar became involved in the planning of the Hubble Space Telescope. Westphal was later named principal investigator of the Space Telescope's Wide-Field and Planetary Camera, which proved to be an enormously successful part of the telescope's scientific mission. Westphal's instrument was used to diagnose the spherical aberration in the main 94-inch mirror, which caused the Hubble's initial focusing problems.

Once the Hubble was safely in orbit, Westphal and his collaborators began receiving data on a regular basis. One of the early images of distant galaxies provided especially compelling evidence for the phenomenon known as gravitational lensing. "When this picture came in," Westphal said in a 1995 interview for Caltech's Engineering and Science magazine, "I put it under [Caltech physicist] Kip Thorne's door with a note saying, 'If you ever have any doubt about gravitational lenses, here's your proof.'"

Already a tenured faculty member and the author of scores of refereed journal articles, and the creator of 15 patented inventions, Westphal was named director of Palomar Observatory in 1995 and served for three years. In 1997 he published a paper with Caltech's Sue Kieffer after lowering one of his custom-designed instruments into Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park to study the geyser's cycling mechanism. The work, which received a good deal of media attention, confirmed previous assumptions about the geyser and also uncovered new details about the eruption cycle.

Westphal took emeritus status in 1998, but remained active in research endeavors until recently. Survivors include his wife, Jean Westphal of Altadena; a son, Andrew Westphal, a daughter-in-law, Kim Taylor, and two granddaughters, Theresa and Laura Westphal, all of Richmond, California; two stepdaughters, Robin Stroll of Agoura Hills, California and Susan Stroll of Eagle Rock, California; and an uncle, Eddy Westphal of Indiana.

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