Alastair Cameron

Senior Research Scientist

Alastair G.W. (Graham Walter) Cameron, 80, one of the great astrophysicists of the 20th century, died of heart failure in Tucson, Ariz., on Oct. 3.

Cameron, was born June 21, 1925, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He sought to unlock the fundamental mysteries of the universe, the stars and the solar system. His public service influenced the course of the U.S. planetary exploration program over the past few decades.

Cameron did fundamental research in astrophysics, planetary sciences, and meteoritics. He was among the first to develop the theory of nucleosynthesis – the production of the chemical elements in stars – and to advocate that the formation of the moon resulted from a giant impact on the early Earth by an object at least the size of Mars.

Cameron was a scholar, researcher, advisor, editor and distinguished member and fellow of many prestigious and leading scientific organizations and associations. He was a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Royal Society of Canada. Cameron was also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Meteoritical Society, and the American Geophysical Union.

Among his many advisory roles, Cameron said his most important was as chairman of the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences from 1976 to 1982.

He spent 26 years of his academic career at Harvard University beginning in 1973 as associate director for planetary sciences at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and, later, as head of Harvard's astronomy department. He was named professor emeritus at Harvard University and appointed the Donald H. Menzel Research Professor of Astrophysics in 1999, a position he held at the time of his death.

At the time of his death he was also a senior research scientist in the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at The University of Arizona. He was a member of the Arizona Senior Academy in Tucson, which is a non-profit organization devoted to life-long learning, thinking and doing.

Cameron's research interests included nucleosynthesis and associated areas of nuclear physics, stellar evolution, supernova explosions, neutron stars, star and planet formation, physics of planets and planetary atmospheres. He considered the main objective of his scientific research was to understand the structures and origins of astronomical objects and systems.

"As I look back on the account of my research career, I am struck by how fortunate I have been in the timing of my research opportunities. My training was in nuclear physics, and the field of nuclear astrophysics opened up just at the right time for me," he said in Adventures in Cosmogony, a retrospective of his career as he approached his retirement published in 1999.

He became a leader and innovator in the application of emerging computer technology for solving astrophysics problems.

He was a champion for academic freedom and a proponent for government funding to support basic research as a means to further technical development and applied research in many areas of knowledge, including the sciences.

Among his many awards and medals of recognition for his contribution to the sciences was the R.M. Petrie Prize Lecture Award from the Canadian Astronomical Society in 1970, the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, awarded in 1983, the J. Lawrence Smith Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in 1988, the Harry H. Hess Medal from the American Geophysical Union in 1989, the Leonard Medal from the Meteoritical Society for his outstanding contributions to the science of meteoritics in 1994, and the Russell Lecturer prize from the American Astronomical Society, awarded to him in 1997 for a lifetime of preeminence in astronomical research.

Five days before his death, Cameron was notified that he had also been named the 2006 recipient of the Hans A. Bethe prize from the Division of Nuclear Physics of the American Physical Society "for his pioneering work in developing the fundamental concepts of nuclear astrophysics. These basic ideas, laid out almost 50 years ago, are still the basis of current research in this field," the society said.

His numerous published works spanned decades. His last research article, "Some Nucleosynthesis Effects Associated with R-Process Jets," was published in 2003 in the Astrophysical Journal.

Cameron began his career as an undergraduate at the University of Manitoba, Canada, during the final years of World War II. Later he earned a doctorate in nuclear physics at the University of Saskatchewan, with renowned Canadian physicist Leon Katz as his thesis advisor.

In between the two degrees, he worked at Chalk River, Ontario, on the atomic energy project of the National Research Council of Canada. He continued his academic career with an assistant professorship at Iowa State College, applying nuclear physics to astrophysical problems. He later returned to Chalk River before immigrating to the United States in 1959, when he worked at the California Institute of Technology. He was among the first to be hired by NASA's newly established Goddard Institute for Space Studies in 1961 and took a leading role in organizing scientific conferences, which helped give the institute an academic flavor.

He was a visiting lecturer at Yale for six years from 1962, when he became involved in many branches of science, including nuclear physics, astrophysics, geophysics, planetary science and meteoritics.

He moved to the Belfer Graduate School of Science of Yeshiva University in New York in 1966 before joining Harvard seven years later.

His grandfather, C.N. Bell, was an officer of the Winnipeg Grain Exchange for many years. His father, A.T. Cameron, was a professor of biochemistry at the Manitoba Medical College. Cameron was predeceased by his wife Elizabeth in 2001. He is survived by his sister, Janet Matthews; his niece, Valerie Matthews Lemieux; her husband, Ron Lemieux, and their family of Winnipeg.

The Arizona Senior Academy held a memorial service for Cameron in Tucson on Oct. 11.

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Alastair Graham Walter Cameron
Alastair Cameron (1925–2005)
Interview of Alastair Cameron by Patrick McCray on 2003 February 10, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA

Last updated on February 8, 2022