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Al Cameron, 1925-2005: Planetary science 'giant' dies at 80

Al Cameron
By Anthony D. Ávila
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
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Senior researcher respected for tackling 'big picture' problems

A UA senior research scientist known as one of the leaders of planetary sciences died earlier this month, leaving the department with big shoes to fill, officials said.

Alastair "Al" Cameron, died Oct. 3 of heart failure in his home at age 80.

Michael Drake, head of the planetary sciences department, called Cameron one of the "giants" who revolutionized modern understanding of the formation of the solar system.

Cameron received many prestigious awards throughout his career and was well respected for his innovative ideas, including the now-accepted theory that the moon formed after a giant object collided with the Earth, said Drake, who met Cameron in 1973 at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

"Cameron went after 'big picture' problems," Drake said. "He challenged theories that had been in place for hundreds of years."

Cameron, who spent 26 years as a professor at Harvard University, moved to Tucson in 1999 to continue his research at the UA, Drake said.

Though he worked at the UA for only six years, some of the UA community said the move from Massachusetts to the desert caused Cameron to relax and become more laid back.

"He came here as a stuffy, Harvard-professor-type and quickly became an Arizonan," Drake said. "He was a pretty serious guy, but it turned out he had a sense of humor I didn't even know about until he came here."

Noreen Conarro, a senior program coordinator of lunar and planetary sciences, said she developed a friendship with Cameron after becoming his unofficial assistant when he came to the UA.

Conarro remembered that she enjoyed Cameron's dry, intellectual humor even though she didn't understand it.

"His sense of humor was off the wall, and he'd laugh at the oddest thing," Conarro said. "He'd tell you stories that just sort of didn't make a whole lot of sense."

He was an ol-school gentleman, a very proper man.

- Noreen Co narro, senior program coordinator with the lunar and planetary sciences department


Conarro recalled that Cameron, an independent worker who spent more time with computers than people, would wait or pace silently in the hall until she invited him in.

Cameron seemed to enjoy their friendly chats about weather and travels, especially after he lost his wife in 2001, Conarro said.

"He was an old-school gentleman, a very proper man," she said. "But he felt comfortable talking to me when I initiated the conversation."

Cameron was also a designer and member of the Arizona Senior Academy, a nonprofit organization created by former UA President Henry Koffler, said Marcia Neugebauer, a planetary scientist and former president of the American Geophysical Union, which honored Cameron in 1989.

"I think what drew him to Tucson was an opportunity to keep working until the end, which he did," Neugebauer said.

Neugebauer and her husband lived near Cameron's home in the Academy Village retirement community.

Because of Cameron's firm belief that

everyone should be electronically connected, he got high-speed Internet installed in his neighborhood, donated computers and arranged a course for new users to learn how to use them, Neugebauer said.

"He felt strongly and he went out and did something about it," she said.

The week before his death, Cameron was named the 2006 recipient of the Hans A. Bethe prize from the Division of Nuclear Physics of the American Physical Society.

From 1976 to 1982, Cameron was chairman of the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences, during which he mapped out the path of space exploration that NASA follows today, Drake said.

Cameron was also known for papers he published that explained why large gaseous planets like Jupiter form near stars and how hydrogen transforms into heavier elements within stars, Drake said.

Drake, who likened Cameron to the 16th century astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, said Cameron's passion and insight would be missed in the field.

"Nobody is irreplaceable (in science), but he's as close to irreplaceable as they come," Drake said. "It will be hard for people to step into his shoes."

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