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OBIT: Prof B. E. J. Pagel, astrophysicist

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OBIT: Prof B. E. J. Pagel, astrophysicist

Posted: 1187793304000
Classification: Obituary
Surnames: Pagel, Tuby
Professor B. E. J. Pagel, Astronomical spectroscopist

Bernard Ephraim Julius Pagel, astrophysicist: born Berlin 4 January 1930; Research Fellow, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge 1953-56; Principal Scientific Officer, Royal Greenwich Observatory 1955-61, Senior Principal Scientific Officer 1961-71, Deputy Chief Scientific Officer 1971-89; Visiting Professor of Astronomy, Sussex University 1970-2007; Professor of Astrophysics, Nordita, Copenhagen 1990-98; FRS 1992; married 1958 Annabel Tuby (two sons, one daughter); died Ringmer, East Sussex 14 July 2007.

B.E.J. Pagel was one of the world's leading experts on the measurement and interpretation of the abundances of chemical elements in stars and galaxies. He was born in Berlin in 1930, but when his father, Walter, a pathologist and distinguished historian of medicine, was dismissed from his post as Jewish persecution increased, the family moved to Britain in 1933. Walter, his wife Magda and Bernard – an only child – lived initially at Papworth Village Settlement near Cambridge, then moved to London just before the Second World War.

Bernard was educated at Merchant Taylors' School in Northwood, and won an open scholarship to read Natural Sciences at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge from 1947. He graduated with first-class honours in Physics in 1950, remaining as a research student at the Cambridge Observatories, including study at the University of Michigan, and obtaining his PhD in 1955.

He was a Research Fellow at Sidney Sussex, 1953-56, during which he spent a short period as Radcliffe Student at the Radcliffe Observatory in Pretoria, South Africa. His early research centred on determining the temperature structure of the solar atmosphere, together with some interpretation of the spectra of solar eclipses. Inspired by Willy Fowler, a future Noble Prize-winner who was visiting Cambridge from California, Bernard Pagel started a life-long interest in the relative abundances of the chemical elements.

In 1956 he moved to the Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex where he spent the major part of his career as a research scientist, progressing to the high grade of Deputy Chief Scientific Officer. A search for more accurate and reliable estimates of chemical abundances led him to develop and refine new methods of analysing the spectra of stars. Although acknowledged as state-of-the art, his methods were not perhaps as widely known as they should have been due to the restriction at that time on employees to publish in the Royal Observatory's own Bulletins, rather than international astronomical journals.

By 1967 Sussex University had established an MSc programme in astronomy. Bernard Pagel became a Visiting Reader and later Visiting Professor, lecturing not only on astronomical spectroscopy but also introductory astronomy and galactic dynamics. In the early 1970s he began to develop simple but elegant theoretical models to describe the chemical evolution of galaxies, work that has served as a foundation for the subject.

By 1975 the Anglo-Australian 3.9m telescope had come into use, and Pagel began a long series of collaborations on the analysis of the emission line spectra of glowing interstellar gas regions. Australian trips allowed him to expand his discriminating appreciation of good red wine. The spectral analyses allowed the determination of chemical element abundances in external galaxies, starting with our nearest neighbours, the Magellanic Clouds, and later extended to many nearby spiral and irregular galaxies.

A particular aspect of this, following a lead from the expatriate astronomer Leonard Searle, was the development in 1979 of a method of estimating a rough value for chemical abundances when observational data were rather sparse and only the strongest lines could be seen. Variants of this method are still extensively used today. The work broadened out to include the active nuclei of galaxies, and fruitful ideas on the origin of the element nitrogen. UK involvement in the opening in 1984 of the Isaac Newton Telescope in La Palma in the Canary Islands created opportunities for Spanish research students to work with him, and at least two of his students are now Professors in Spain.

Pagel's years at Herstmonceux represented the happiest time professionally, but "retirement" at 60 was compulsory, so he moved in 1990 to a Chair at the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (Nordita) in Copenhagen. Here, aided by his extraordinary facility for languages, he became very much respected throughout Scandinavian astronomy. A major collaborative programme was completed on the determination of the amount of the element helium that was produced in the Big Bang. Although not definitive due to the unwitting neglect of a subtle systematic bias, the study was very influential in setting a standard of rigour which subsequent investigations had to emulate. The modern value determined in this way is crucial in measuring the amount of normal (baryonic) matter in the Universe.

By the time he had "retired" again in 1998, this time from Copenhagen back to Sussex, he had completed his definitive book Nucleosynthesis and the Chemical Evolution of Galaxies (1997) for Cambridge University Press, the revisions for the second edition of which he had virtually completed just before his death.

He remained very active, giving a paper at a conference in Tenerife as recently as April this year. He had been awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1990 and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1992. He could be a formidable, but always fair, critic. He gave freely of his time to those who asked for help and advice.

In 1958 he married Annabel Tuby, and they had three children, Celia, David and Jonathan. The Pagel household in Ringmer, Sussex, will be warmly remembered by many visiting astronomers. Bernard loved music, especially Bach, Schubert and Mozart – often playing piano with great enthusiasm, both on his own and with duet partners. He will be remembered with great affection by several generations of colleagues and students, particularly for the beady-eyed look over his pipe and a quick and brilliant intelligence which would put even one of his heroes, Sherlock Holmes, to shame.

from: The Independent, London UK, 22 August 2007

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