Prof. Emeritus Peter O. Vandervoort, an astrophysicist who was trained by legendary scientists at the University of Chicago and spent his career mentoring hundreds of students, colleagues and the public, died Dec. 11. He was 85.
Part of the UChicago community for nearly seven decades, Vandervoort, AB’54, SB’55, SM’56, PhD’60, was remembered by colleagues as the resident historian of the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics and a lifelong champion for the University.
“In many ways, Peter was the embodiment of the history and culture in the astronomy department, but I also thought of him as embodying the ideals of the University,” said Prof. Richard Kron, a longtime friend and colleague in the department. “He valued your opinion regardless of whether he disagreed, and he had the utmost respect for everyone as human beings and as participants in this academic world, which was really special.”
Born April 25, 1935 in Detroit, Michigan, Vandervoort enrolled in the University of Chicago as an undergraduate in 1951. As his interest in physics grew, he spent time as a laboratory teaching assistant in a physics laboratory located under the West Stands of Stagg Field, near the site of the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.
He started his Ph.D. surrounded by UChicago physicists who would later become legendary names in the field. His advisor was Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who later won the 1983 Nobel Prize; 1963 Nobel laureate Maria Goeppert Mayer was on his Ph.D. committee; and Robert S. Mulliken, the 1966 Nobel laureate, served on his Ph.D. candidacy examination committee.
Of being surrounded by these pioneering scholars, he told the Manhattan Project Voices: “You’ve been invited to Mount Olympus. What can I say?” He was also friends with Carl Sagan, whom he had met as a fellow UChicago undergraduate, and they kept in touch for many years.
After receiving his Ph.D., he spent time at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the Princeton University Observatory. In 1961 he rejoined the University as an assistant professor, and aside from a brief stint at the Leiden University Observatory in the Netherlands, he would remain at UChicago for the rest of his life.
Vandervoort’s area of specialty in astrophysics was stellar dynamics, the study of the movement of stars within galaxies. One of the oldest branches of theoretical astronomy, the field is heavily mathematical. Among other findings, Vandervoort helped fill in gaps in our understanding of the formation of spiral galaxies, calculated the orbits of stars inside these galaxies, and contributed to discussions of the role of chaos in stars and galaxies.
“It was clear that he was influenced by Chandrasekhar to think about elegant problems—places where nature would do something really interesting and there was a clever mathematical way of approaching how that process works,” Kron said.
One of Vandervoort’s greatest joys, however, was working with students. “That’s a good way to see what an academic is all about, is to look at what kind of students they produce,” Kron said.
One such former student, Ellen G. Zweibel, relayed her gratitude for Vandervoort in a letter nominating him for the Norman Maclean Faculty Award for teaching excellence. In 1971, she was a math student in the undergraduate College. She mused to Vandervoort about a possible idea she had; Vandervoort helped flesh it out and found a dataset to study the idea, then wrote it up as a paper.
“Although the idea would have been stillborn, and the paper would never have been written without Peter, he made me first author of the paper,” wrote Zweibel, who is now a professor of astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Undergraduate research in astronomy is fairly common now, but at that time, it was rare. It was an emotional thunderbolt for me to realize that I could contribute to astronomical knowledge. He was a great mentor to me, and I have always thought that, in some ways, I owe my career to him.”
‘He was an institution here’
Friends and colleagues recollected that Vandervoort had a particular genius for matching students’ skills and specialties to the areas that suited them best, and that his door was always open.