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Dr. Karl Walter Kamper, 1941-1998

By Prof. Tom Bolton

Click Here for more information about the Karl Kamper Memorial Lecture.

Karl Kamper, astrometrist, spectroscopist and instrumentation scientist, was born on 1941 April 20 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He earned a BSc with honors in astronomy from Georgetown University in 1963. He received his PhD in Astronomy from the University of Pittsburgh in 1973. Karl was employed full time from 1969, hence the unusually long time between his BSc and PhD.

Karl was a Research Astronomer at Lick Observatory in 1969-70. He then joined the staff of the Van Vleck Observatory at Wesleyan University as Research Associate and Lecturer (1970-71), Instructor (1971-72), and Research Associate and Lecturer again (1973-74). During that year he was also a Lecturer in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Western Connecticut State College.

Karl came to the David Dunlap Observatory (DDO) in 1974 as a Postdoctoral Fellow working with Sidney van den Bergh. A year later he became the photographer on Observatory’s permanent technical staff, though his responsibilities gradually grew to cover many other areas of the Observatory’s activities. In 1979 he was appointed Assistant Professor (status only) of Astronomy at the University of Toronto. This allowed him to take sessional teaching jobs and apply for support for his research. Karl taught Astronomy courses in 1974, 1975, and 1983. He also was a Course Director at Atkinson College of York University from 1975-78. Karl was appointed Professional Engineering Officer at the Observatory in 1983, a position he held until his death. He was responsible for instrument design, optical design, fabrication and testing, instrument testing, monitoring data quality, and eventually, supervision of the Observatory technical staff.

Karl was an astrometrist with a special interest in astrometric- spectroscopic and visual binaries. He published several detailed studies of astrometric-spectroscopic binary systems. He used the PDS microdensitometer to measure many archival plates of wide visual binaries from the Lick Observatory and new plates of southern double stars obtained with the Hogg telescope at the University of Toronto Southern Observatory. His collaboration with Sidney van den Bergh continued throughout their career. In 1976 they published the definitive proper motion study of the Cas A supernova remnant based on observations spanning 25 years. In two subsequent papers, they extended the baseline to nearly 40 years. They had obtained observations to extend the baseline another 15 years when Karl died. They also published a definitive study of the expansion of the optical remnant of Tycho’s Supernova and analyzed the expansion of the optical remnants of Kepler’s Supernova, and MSH 15-52 (G320.4-1.2).

Karl was part of the team following the decline in the pulsation of Polaris, a Cepheid variable. He used the telluric absorption bands to improve the accuracy of radial velocities obtained at the DDO to about 100 meters per second. Don Fernie and he submitted the most recent paper in this series for publication only three weeks before Karl’s death. Karl and Jason Harlow used the 1.88 m telescope at DDO to carry out a survey of the radial velocities of more than 100 M dwarf stars. Their results approximately doubled the number of M dwarfs with good radial velocity data, and they found several interesting binary stars that they continue to follow.

Karl was always looking for ways to do things differently and new ways to use the equipment. He used the PDS microdensitometer at DDO to measure astrometric plates with an accuracy of 0.5 microns. He tried slitless spectroscopy of nebulae with the cassegrain spectrograph on the 1.88 m telescope. Karl used plates from the Allegheny Observatory to obtain one of the few parallaxes ever measured for a cataclysmic variable (SS Cygni). He and Bill Bagnuolo used the photon counting spectrometer on the 1.88 m telescope to demonstrate the feasibility of using “passive interspectroscopy,” sometimes called speckle spectroscopy, to separate the spectra of two stars that can be resolved only by speckle interferometry.

Karl was a central figure in designing the instrument modifications during the fifteen years when the Observatory converted the 1.88 m telescope instruments to electronic detectors and computer control. He was also one of the most important factors in making the Helen Sawyer Hogg Telescope at the University of Toronto Southern Observatory the most productive small telescope in the world. He designed and built instruments for it and made several trips to Chile to maintain and upgrade the telescope

Karl did a limited amount of teaching at the University of Toronto and York University after he joined the staff at the David Dunlap Observatory. He was well liked by his students, who enjoyed his relaxed, conversational teaching style and his many anecdotes. He was an excellent mentor for both undergraduate and graduate students. A few undergraduates were fortunate to have the opportunity to work for him in the summer, but he also mentored many other students, both undergraduate and graduate, that were working for others at the Observatory.

Karl’s opportunities for teaching were limited after he joined the staff of the DDO. However he was able to find time to teach a few courses for astronomy majors, arts students and the public at the University of Toronto and York University. These courses were always highly rated. Karl’s lectures were noted for their clarity. They were always entertaining because they were heavily laden with anecdotes about astronomy and astronomers. He was an excellent mentor for his own student research assistants and other undergraduates and graduates working at DDO.