Aden B. Meinel, Pioneering Optical Scientist, Dies at 88

Meinel founded Kitt Peak Observatory and the UA Optical Sciences Center.
Oct. 11, 2011
Aden B. Meinel
Aden B. Meinel
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Aden B. Meinel, founding director of the University of Arizona Optical Sciences Center and eponym of the building in which the world-renowned College of Optical Sciences is housed, died on Oct. 2. He was 88.

"It's a sad day for OSC," said James C. Wyant, dean of the College of Optical Sciences. "Aden played an enormous role, not only in the history of the center and the college, but also in the subjects of astronomy and optical sciences and in the establishment of southern Arizona's Optics Valley."

Meinel's research interests included solar optics and space optics – everything from astrophysics and engineering to solar energy and spectroscopy. As Regents' Professor of Astronomy and current Director of the Steward Observatory Peter Strittmatter explained, "He ...made truly gigantic contributions to astronomical optics. Astronomy – and Arizona astronomy in particular – owes him a huge debt of gratitude."

His forays into the field began in 1940, when he joined the Mount Wilson Observatory optical shop, near Pasadena, Calif., as a technician. He also worked briefly as a research assistant at the California Institute of Technology before being commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Navy Reserve in 1945.

Meinel received his bachelor's and doctoral degrees in astronomy from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1947 and 1949 respectively. Before his arrival in Arizona, he also worked at the McDonald Observatory in western Texas and the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisc.

In 1958, Meinel became the founding director of Kitt Peak National Observatory, just south of Tucson, before moving on to the UA, where he headed the department of astronomy and the Steward Observatory.

Then, in the early 1960s, he collaborated with the Air Force Institute of Technology and the Needs in Optics Committee of the Optical Society of America to create the Optical Sciences Center, which opened its doors to students in 1964.

"The center was his idea," Wyant explained. "He convinced the University to provide the land and got the money from the government to build the building. We would not be here if it were not for Aden."

Professor Emeritus Stephen F. Jacobs, who recently spearheaded a successful campaign to have a poster recognizing Meinel's contributions installed at the Kitt Peak Visitor Center, worked with him in the early days of the center. "Aden's advice was always encouraging," he said. "He was always very, very positive ...and always restless for the next idea."

Philip N. Slater, an emeritus professor hired by Meinel in 1966, recalled their first meeting. "I was impressed with him, the staff and the students he had already attracted to join him." The Slater family moved to Tucson a matter of months later to join the team. "Aden had a huge impact on our lives."

Meinel retired from the UA in 1985. He then became a distinguished scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, where he remained for eight years. In 1993, the structure at 1630 E. University Blvd. on the UA Mall, which currently holds the College of Optical Sciences, was named in his honor.

Meinel garnered numerous awards during his career, including the Warner Prize from the American Astronomical Society, the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal, the Adolph Lomb and Frederic Ives Medals from the Optical Society, or OSA, the SPIE Gold Medal and the George Van Biesbroeck Prize.

He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, OSA and SPIE. He served as councillor of the American Astronomical Society and as president of the International Astronomical Union and OSA. He also served on advisory boards for the American Institute of Physics and OSA.

Meinel coauthored several books with his wife, Marjorie, including "Applied Solar Energy: An Introduction" and "Sunsets, Twilights and Evening Skies."

In 1960, Asteroid 4065 Meinel was named in his honor.

A memorial service will take place on Oct. 14 at 4 p.m. at Christ the Servant Lutheran Church in Henderson, Nev. In lieu of flowers, donations are welcomed for the church's memorial fund in Aden Meinel's name.