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Herschel B. Snodgrass ’59

November 24, 2020, in Portland, from multiple myeloma.

An internationally recognized astrophysicist for his work on sunspots and solar magnetism, Herschel began life in Portland. His father, Herschel R. Snodgrass ’36, became radicalized during the Comintern (Communist International) movement, and the family was forced to flee Portland in the ’30s. The senior Herschel eventually became a professor of physics at what is now UC San Diego.

Encouraged to savor art, music, and nature, the young Herschel grew up in a family dedicated to exploring the meaning of existence and maintaining a wonderful curiosity about things. He disdained the notion that “time equals money.”

Choosing the college that had served his father so well, Herschel B. came to Portland aboard the Shasta Daylight. “There was a whole train car reserved for Reed College students and it was absolutely marvelous,” he recalled. “I met these people and they were completely transfixed with the same stuff I was transfixed with. We spent the entire time entertaining the dome car with our loud discussion about transfinite numbers.”

He fell in love with the Gothic buildings on campus, set amidst the gloaming. “My first impression was absolutely passionate,” he said years later, “and I still love the place.”

He majored in physics and wrote his thesis, “The Relationship Between the ‘F’ Band in Silver Chloride and the Absorption of Thin Silver Films,” advised by Prof. Robert Martin  [physics 1956–62]. He also worked for Martin on a summer research program, living with the Martins in their home. He remembered the “vicious” carrom games that Martin’s wife, Roberta, set up for students.

“Reed was the door out of childhood,” he said. “It set me on a course that I have followed ever since. The math I learned was the thing I value the most. It shaped my whole esthetic about scientific work.”

During graduate school at the University of Maryland and UC Berkeley, he became active in the Free Speech Movement and was jailed for occupying the administration building. After a postdoctorate at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences in New York City, he was invited back to Berkeley to teach. Herschel worked as a research associate in mathematical physics and as a teacher, but after three years he quit, in part over protest against the Vietnam War. What followed was an eight-year hiatus in New York, where he studied piano with Edith Oppens and taught environmental studies and astronomy at the New School for Social Research. He received a research fellowship at Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, where he became “incarnated” as an astrophysicist. While at the observatory, he married Zan Tewksbury, a former student.

In 1984, he took a position as a visiting associate physics professor at Reed; two years later, he was offered a job at Lewis & Clark College. He spent summers doing research on the solar magnetic activity cycle in a continuing association with Mount Wilson, supported by grants from the NSF. In 1987, Herschel was one of 10 people named in Astrophysics News of the Year. He taught at Lewis & Clark for 30 years, winning admiration for both his excitement for physics and his genuine concern for the development of his students as both scientists and humans.

“I’ve gone from a place in my life where I was interested in research and my own personal development to a point where I began to enjoy sharing it with people,” he said. “That was sort of my mission as a teacher, to help people find something that gives them joy and enhances their human attributes, their love for each other, and their love for the world in which they live. And if physics is an agent for that, then terrific!”

Music also played a big role in Herschel’s life. At a young age, he played the clarinet with what later became the Portland Symphony, and relished the works of Schubert, Shostakovich, and the Incredible String Band. His final partner was Gerd, with whom he reconnected after many years of being friends.

As a father, he enjoyed reading Tolkien to his two children and taught them how to walk without flashlights in a darkened forest without being afraid. He celebrated the beauty he found in the work of such heroes as Saul Steinberg, Sviatoslav Richter, and Greta Thunberg.

Asked how Reed students should be prepared for the future, he responded, “Give them a lust for learning and encourage their lust for life, and show them that these are not incompatible. By all means, emphasize the notion of learning how to think.”

Herschel is survived by his children, Carl and Emma, and his brother Vince.

Appeared in Reed magazine: June 2021

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