Simon Swordy, astrophysicist and expert on cosmic radiation, 1954-2010

Simon Swordy, a leading expert on the origins of high-energy particles and gamma rays that bombard the earth from deep space, died of lymphoma on Monday at the University of Chicago Medical Center. He was 56.

Swordy, the James Franck Professor of Physics, Astronomy and Astrophysics, and the College, worked with his students to invent and build numerous detector systems for the observation of cosmic rays and gamma rays. He played a leading role in many international collaborations, including VERITAS (Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System). VERITAS, a collection of four large telescopes in southern Arizona that have been in operation since 2007, observes high-energy gamma rays from the sky, the most energetic "light" ever seen in astronomy.

Swordy was a founding member and leader of VERITAS. "He was a leading light in the design of VERITAS, translating a concept into a real project and gently prodding us to back off from personal agendas to practical solutions," said Trevor Weekes of the Harvard Smithsonian Observatory, a senior colleague at VERITAS. "He was largely responsible for holding the collaboration together during difficult times. In our darkest hours, when it appeared that the intransigence of the funding agencies might lead to VERITAS not going forward, it was Simon who rallied the troops and with his 'once more into the breach' philosophy got us fired up again."

Pioneering work in gamma-ray astrophysics

Along with similar installations overseas, VERITAS helped establish gamma-ray astrophysics as a new and flourishing branch of astronomy. Such gamma-ray emissions may come from the remnants of exploding stars and may help explain the mysterious source of high-energy cosmic rays - subatomic particles of matter that bombard our planet from all directions. These emissions also give insight into the processes driving the violent jets at the cores of distant galaxies, and may even provide hints on the nature of dark matter.

Swordy also led a number of observations using instrumentation on balloon or space-based platforms. When he first came to Chicago as a research associate in 1979, he was charged with the task of helping to implement a novel and very large cosmic-ray detector that had been proposed by his senior colleagues - the late Peter Meyer, Professor in Physics, and Dietrich Muller, Professor Emeritus in Physics - for flight on the space shuttle. This was an enormously large and complex project.

Affectionately called the "Chicago Egg," it remains one of the largest pieces of scientific hardware ever flown on the shuttle, and it provided the first direct observations of cosmic rays in the unexplored high-energy region, Muller recalled.

"This was a time of very hard work, full of surprises, but also full of good camaraderie resulting from Simon's wit and dry humor," Muller said. "The shuttle was still in development, and NASA imposed new requirements almost daily; the type of detector we were trying to build was entirely new and not proven before. If it had not been for Simon, with his never exhaustible supply of new ideas and unconventional solutions, 'the Egg' might not have become as successful as it was."

A number of students participated in this work, including John Grunsfeld, SM'84, PhD'88, who later became famous as a NASA astronaut and expert on the Hubble Space Telescope. However, after the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, NASA turned away from projects like the Egg. High-altitude balloons once again had to be used to carry innovative instruments above the atmosphere. Swordy was a key participant in a number of such investigations, including a large instrument called RICH, which employed a new Cherenkov detector that Swordy designed. Another major collaboration investigated cosmic anti-particles, positrons and antiprotons, in a search for dark-matter candidates.

Meanwhile, the art of ballooning had advanced to the point where very long observation times, several weeks or so, became possible in circumpolar flights in Antarctica. Swordy took advantage of this development as a member of two teams building cosmic-ray detectors, CREAM and TRACER. He had developed major plans for future observations, but his death will leave these as a challenge to his successors.

Over the course of his career, Swordy authored or co-authored more than 200 scientific papers. He was admired for his ability to distill complicated ideas into simple figures or images. "He had this one figure that is so iconic that you see it now in virtually every presentation given on cosmic ray physics," said friend and colleague Scott Wakely, Assistant Professor in Physics. "He never stopped being amused seeing it translated into some other, new language."

Expertise aided undergraduate teaching

Born in Birmingham in the United Kingdom, Swordy was a student of the eminent cosmic-ray researcher Peter Fowler and received his Ph.D. at the University of Bristol in 1978. The following year he became a research associate at the Enrico Fermi Institute at UChicago. He joined the faculty of the Physics Department in 1986 and attained the rank of professor in 1997. From 2000 to 2003 he served as Master of the Physical Sciences Collegiate Division and associate dean of the Physical Sciences. In 2007, he became director of the Enrico Fermi Institute.

As Master of the Physical Sciences Collegiate Division, Swordy helped undergraduates become more interested in science. "The presence of a group of enthusiastic, young people who are primed to learn gives the University a different character than research labs at NASA or the Department of Energy," he said in 2000.

He was particularly interested in helping students outside the physical sciences appreciate the value of science. "Compared with the necessary dialogue about a book in a humanities classroom, where everyone is going to have their own interpretation, the correct answer in a scientific experiment is not only always the same, it's not up to the people who seek it. That's outside human control," he explained.

Swordy was a Fellow of the American Physical Society, was the George E. Uhlenbeck Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan in 1991 and served on numerous professional committees, including the Commission on Cosmic Rays (C4) of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, which he chaired from 2005-08.

In addition to his scientific career, Swordy was an accomplished craftsman and talented musician. He trained in flamenco guitar under the famous master Juan Mart'in and played on a semi-professional basis around Chicagoland for many years.

He was a resident of Oak Park. Survivors include his wife Josephine Ryan; children Christopher, John and Julia; brothers Stephen, Andrew and Peter, sister Marie Slater, and mother Zena Swordy.

Services will be private, but a public memorial will be held at the University in the autumn.

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Simon Swordy

Photo by Jason Smith

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