Alumni Newsletter Vol 1, Number 3


September 13, 1999


Dear Alumni and Friends:

It's been a very busy month since our last communication (and yes, I promise that this *won't* be a monthly letter!) But I wanted to bring all our alumni and friends up to date on what's been happening around Rice. In the next newsletter, I'll pass along more of the news about what *you* all are doing. But I did want to bring you up to date on some interesting developments.

I did get a delightful note from Brian O'Brien in Australia (attached in .rtf format - almost any word processing software package should be able to open it). I'll also put it on our web page with this newsletter.

1. The Visiting Committee

We are all busily getting ready for the visit of our first-ever solo Visiting Committee later this week (all our other previous Visiting Committees were joint with Physics). This blue-ribbon committee will help us decide among our various "go to" plans for replacing our retiring (or recently departed) faculty (and help us make the case to the Dean that in fact we should be allowed to replace our faculty) . (We crafted three possible scenarios in our recent departmental retreat). In addition, they have been charged with the task of helping the University decide whether a merger with the Physics Department is a reasonable plan. It would certainly give us a very large department, and increase our merged visibility around the country. It would also presumably help us in recruiting new graduate students by having more visible options for the students. On the other hand, we can think of several important arguments against a merger, most notably that the SPAC part of the merged department would be very likely smaller in number than now and smaller in impact on the whole. In addition, our "Space Physics" half, which has international recognition, would become less visible and perhaps perceived as being demoted. Furthermore, Physics does not allow its research faculty voting rights on significant issues, and we fear that we would not be able to attract nor retain future research faculty. Finally, our latest plans to enhance the curriculum, by creating a "BA in Space Physics and Astronomy" with fewer requirements in order to attract new students scared off by Physics and allow double majors, and by encouraging MS-only candidates, would likely also be in limbo.

What do you think? Would having a larger "Physics and Astronomy" Department have influenced you in a positive manner to come to Rice? I'm interested in your views pro or con. If you fax me a letter to (713)285-5143, I'll share it with the committee. But I need it by this Thursday at the latest, since my presentation is Friday morning the 17th.

2. New Faculty Openings

I am pleased to report that the Dean has given us formal permission to advertise for two new faculty, one at the Assistant to Associate Professor level, and one at the Assistant Professor level. The area of concentration should be high-energy Astrophysics, and the candidates should be qualified to have joint appointments with Physics. The highest priority in the search process is that we identify and attract candidates of the very highest calibre. Given that we will have both of our "Buchanan Chairs" open next year, I am hoping that if a superstar can be identified, we can stretch that more senior position to full professor to accommodate. Similarly, I would like to keep the area of the junior position broad in order to attract the best possible person, regardless of the specific area of expertise. We are especially interested in improving the diversity of the faculty (you know what that means). We are crafting a formal advertisement and hope to have it posted in the typical places very soon.

3. The Teaching Telescope

This is one of those "good news - bad news" things.... As a result of our last newsletter, telling that we'd love to get a new teaching telescope on campus, you all have been extremely generous in sending in donations to the new observatory! The amounts received so far total $4050 from 20 alumni (to which I have added my match so far of $512.50). In addition, we have received $1620 from 10 present and former faculty and staff, making the total received so far of $6182.50! Wow - thanks a bunch - keep it coming! 

It's still not near what we need for the telescope and dome ($150K), or for the rooftop installation (which could be $500K), but it's a great start, and shows that you all do keep the SPAC department in your hearts!

As for the "Lestrade Challenge" (to see which faculty member's *students* give the most), Dr. Freeman and I are still tied at $1000 each, based on the extremely generous gifts from John Benson and Rudy Frahm, respectively, but Cloutier's students are charging ahead by sheer numbers. Let's see if the students from the other faculty can show us up! Remember, my challenge is still active: for the first $100 from an alumnus (graduate or undergrad), I'm matching $25; for the second $100, I'm matching $10, to a total match of $2500.

And now the bad news: because I told you all in writing that the doorway to the Fondren roof was dangerous, I served notice to the University of a dangerous condition. The University therefore can't let us use the roof of Fondren anymore for our astronomy labs! This, combined with the fact that we can't use the Space Science building either (only one stairway), led us to a campus-wide search for the best location, aided by the Facilities & Engineering group.

It turns out that there is *no* good location. The roofs of Biology and Space Science could possibly be modified to have a second stairway, but they both have roof vents with noxious fumes (the occasional dead bird attests to the potential danger there). The roof of Lovett college or one of the new college additions could be modified to accommodate, but the Masters are concerned with security of their students and are unwilling to let us share their unused space. The proposed addition to Fondren is lower than the present rooftop, and thus would not have a clear sky to the East. A ground-level observatory could possibly be built, but a site would need to be found. The west end of campus looks more spacious, but it is very bright, particularly when the stadium is in use. One site near Main St. (between the roads of Entrance 1 and Entrance 2) would be possible - it's dark, and noone else is planning a building there. But the building would have to look nice (to match Rice's architectural style), and the dome would have to project above the tree canopy, so the cost would probably be more than a million. Any ideas??? We are really concerned about our lab this spring. We may have to buy a little trailer to house a portable telescope, or drag our telescopes onto the lawn every night. Yech!

4. Umbe's Birthday

Umbelina Cantu will be 50 this Friday (the 17th), and, amazingly enough, we were able to actually surprise her with a party last Friday night. She thought I was giving a party for a potential donor to the telescope (would that I had been!), and Rachel in the Dean's office had sent me emails to that effect which threw her off perfectly. At the last minute I "realized that the caterers hadn't sent desserts", so I called her at the office and she volunteered to stop by Goode Company and pick up a couple of pies. When she arrived we had over 60 people in my house and yard, wishing her the best. It was grand fun, if a little warm (my A/C wasn't quite up to the task). If you want to send her greetings, her email is , and you know she'd love to hear from you.

5. The Eclipse

Spac alum Rick Fienberg (BA '78), publisher of Sky and Telescope, organized a wonderful trip to totality on the ship Marco Polo, with 2 days in Athens before and 3 days in Istanbul after the 8-day cruise. The Association of Rice Alumni booked 48 passengers on the cruise, and Adjunct Professor Carolyn Sumners, former astronaut Jay Apt (who is now the Director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and who is working with us on our outreach program), Russell Brown of Adobe Systems and I were featured lecturers on the ship, and conducted various workshops. We will soon have a web page of images, movies, and reminiscences from the trip - it will soon (but not yet!) be at

but in the meantime you can see the Sky and Telescope eclipse page at

Brad Templeton's (a true "eclipsoholic") eclipse page at

and the Goddard eclipse page at

Join us for the 2001 eclipse trip to Africa!!

To subscribe to our "spacalum" listserver, send email to with the *text* of your message being subscribe spacalum firstname lastname where you replace "firstname lastname" with your name. Hope to have you join us so I don't have to send it to you manually!

... Pat Reiff