Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Don Backer

Sadly, the world and I lost Don Backer on July 25, 2010. In addition to being an inspiring scientist, instrumentalist, and educator, Don was my graduate and post-doctoral advisor, and my close friend. He and I worked closely together from 2004 until last Sunday, when he died suddenly of an apparent heart attack.

Don was well known for discovering the first millisecond pulsar early in his career. More recently, he and I had been working on the Precision Array for Probing the Epoch of Reionization--and experiment for detecting the first stars and galaxies that formed in the universe. We recently had a made a lot of exciting progress with this experiment, and it is especially tragic to lose him at such a pivotal time.

Don was a very warm yet reserved man. He was always extremely busy, and I envied his ability to juggle a huge number of tasks at once. Yet every time I walked into his office, gave me a big welcoming smile, saying "Hi Aaron! Come on in." In that instant between when he looked up and when recognized me, I would sometimes see a hint of displeasure at being interrupted (a lot of people in the department walked into Don's office to hassle him about any of the many projects that he was involved in), but it was always gone the instant he recognized me, and I took pride in being someone from whom Don welcomed interruptions.

Don was always a model to me of how to be and instrumentalist and a scientist. I've long been interested in both building and using scientific instruments, and Don was a shining example of how to do both. I learned a lot from Don that helped guide me professionally, and I owe him a lot for his advice and generosity. It is sobering to consider that my next steps will have to be without Don's quiet support and encouragement. In many respects, though, Don's generosity has already helped pave the next steps for me. I'm sure I will continue to incur debt to him for years to come.

One of my favorite qualities of Don was his grand sense of adventure. Our foray into the Karoo desert to deploy PAPER in South Africa could not have happened without Don's enthusiasm for traveling, roughing it, and flying by the seat of the pants. I loved going on deployment expeditions with Don. He was always bright-eyed and smiling, summoning such energy at 66 years that I, at 29, struggled to keep up. It was not hard to see the Don of the black-and-white photographs, the same wiry energy and wry grin that stood in front of me.

Don was never very forthcoming with advice--he advised me more by example. I'm pretty sure this was a result of a very ingrained sense of humility. Don never said "you're wrong", or "you should". I think he didn't feel it was his place to pass judgment on people. Despite this humility, or probably because of it, Don was an effective leader. Without badgering people or using heavy-handed methods, Don brought people into consensus and helped move projects forward. Unfortunately, his effectiveness, coupled with his self-described "responsibility gene", meant that he was often called upon to bail out troubled projects, and he had a hard time refusing them. I often wished Don spent more time on PAPER. I think he did, too.

Don and I were a great team. I'm not a good multi-tasker. Don insulated me from a lot of project management, logistics, and distractions, carving out a space for me to work effectively toward our goal. Soon, some of the important products of our partnership will bear fruit, and I'm sad that Don won't be there to see it. But he knew it was in the works before he left, and for that I am thankful.

I'm sad to have lost a good friend and mentor. Things are hard now as we try to pick up the pieces of all the many things Don was managing. I'm sad that he's not here to help. He was always good at bailing us out.


  1. Wonderful words, Aaron.

    Your comments about Don being welcoming and excited to talk about science strike a note with me. I was usually reluctant to go to his office and bother him, since he was so busy. Still I always felt welcome there to chat about new ideas, etc.. He really felt the thrill of scientific exploration.

  2. I really liked your post and especially the quotes from Don---you can hear him say those words.