John Beckman: "Astronomy is a science that makes us humble"

John Beckman giving a speech during his invesment as Doctor Honoris Causa at the Main hall of the University of La Laguna. Credit: Elena Mora (IAC).
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The University of La Laguna (ULL) today celebrated the solemn act of investment as Doctor Honoris Causa of the astrophysicist John Beckman, Emeritus Research Professor of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) and of the Astrophysics Department of the University of La Laguna (ULL), as well as researcher at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC). The proposal which led to this honour was initiated by the Department of Astrophysics and the Physics Department of the ULL and of the IAC. The ceremony, where the designer Manolo Blahnik has also been invested, was presided over by the Rector Magnífico of the University, Antonio Martinón, and took place in the Main Hall of the University, the Paraninfo.

Teodoro Roca Cortés, professor of Astrophysics of the ULL and researcher at the IAC, was responsible of the laudatio dedicated to John Beckman. "Their students and younger colleagues –he said- talk about his generosity, who he has always helped and given hours of discussions scientific. He insisted that young doctors had to go out, socialize with their colleagues from other universities, establish contacts and enrich their training as researchers. In addition, he has supervised 30 doctoral theses, of which 23 are from students of the ULL. Almost all of them are present here today accompanying him in this solemn act”.

John Beckman explained in his speech the fundamental role played by the excellent skies of the Canary Islands to stay here and do astronomy. "It was the inspiration of my life, since I was a child I asked my mother what were those points that shone in the sky," said the astrophysicist. "Astronomy – he adds-, is a science that makes us humble and we should feel proud of searching with our instrumentation the limits of the Universe ". “Their study inspires us in this beautiful search," he concluded.

Juan Esteban Beckman Abramson is the name which the astrophysicist John Etienne Beckman (Leeds, United Kingdom) had to assume when he became a naturalized Spanish citizen in 1991. It was during his over 30 years of research at the Instituto de Astrofísisca de Canarias, which began when, in 1984, he accepted the position of Research Coordinator of the IAC. Previously, he had obtained his degree and his doctorate in Theoretical Physics and Astrophysics respectively at the University of Oxford.

After a period as postdoc in the University of California, Berkeley, where as well as researching he also spent time in outreach, John Beckman became a Senior Researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and NASA. While there he published his first article about measurements of the abundances of molecules in planetary atmospheres, in the journal Planetary and Space Science (“The measurement of abundances in planetary atmospheres using an image intensifier and a solar spectrograph”, 1967). But the most interesting piece of work he carried out at JPL was to collaborate in the preparation of an infrared radiometre for the Mariner mission, which was launched by NASA in 1969 to measure the Martian surface temperature.

On his return to Europe, Beckman led a Group at the Department of Physics at the Queen Mary College, of the University of London. His most significant experiment in those years was the first measurement of the spectrum of the cosmic microwave background in the submillimetre wavelength range. The cosmic microwave background (CMB) predicted by the American physicists Alpher and Herman and also by the Ucranian Goerge Gamow in 1948 and discovered in 1964 by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, is the energy left over in the form of electromagnetic radiation from the Big Bang. Its discovery marked the acceptance of the Big Bang theory and many astrophysicists are studying it today. At the Teide Observatory, the QUIJOTE CMB experiment is designed to study the polarization of this cosmic microwave background, and specifically, the conditions in which inflation occurred in the very early universe, an epoch of hyper-rapid expansion at its inception.

Beckman also worked for 5 years at the European Space Agency (ESA), between 1974 and 1979, where he collaborated in the preparation of Hipparcos, an astrometric satellite which made great steps forward in measuring the positions and distances of stars, and was the predecessor to the contemporary GAIA mission, which was launched on 19th September 2013.  

After passing four more years in the Molecular Astronomy Group of the University of London, in 1984 he moved to the IAC, where he initiated lines of research which were then very new, including cosmology, the physics of galaxies, and the physics of the interstellar medium. In addition, his curriculum contains other merits, such as being the scientific director of the Astronomy Week, organized by the University of Almería and the Asociación Astronómica y Cultural Orión de Almería whose observatory was named after him in 2012. This astrophysicist has also directed two series of documentaries “Our Universe” and “Bolivia, Heart of a Continent” both of which were broadcast on Spanish National Television.

Beckman has tackled a wide range of themes, from the cosmic background radiation, the origin, structure, and evolution of the galaxies, the physics of the solar chromosphere and of more distant stars, the molecular abundances in planetary atmosphere, and the physics of ionized regions (“HII regions”) in interstellar space, as well as the development of biodigestors and renewable energy in Bolivia.

By awarding him the distinction of Doctor Honoris Causa the University of La Laguna has wanted to recognize, in this eclectic universe, his “highly relevant merits and qualities in the fields of education, scientific research, the cultivation of Letters and the Arts and his work on behalf of the University and of culture in general”.

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