Memories of Donald Hunten
I worked as a postdoc with Don from 1980 until 1984; Steve Massie was Don’s other
postdoc at the time. I have some quotes from Steve that I intersperse here with my own
During my last year as a grad student at Leiden University, the Netherlands, my husband
Wil van Breugel and I were applying for postdoc positions; we each applied to 2
positions. Wil got a position offered at Kitt Peak National Observatory (now NOAO for
the younger folks). This was a rare opportunity for Wil, to join an optical observatory as a
radio astronomer. But I had not applied to Tucson. During a meeting, my advisor, John
Dickel, asked Don Hunten – I knew his name, but never had met Don in person at the
time – if Don perhaps had some leftover money. And Don’s answer: Oh, yes, he had
some; he would place an add, and I should apply. The rest is history; I started working as
a postdoc in October 1980 (as a side note: I was offered a position both by Don and a
different one by Chuck Sonnett).
My first day at LPL I went into Don’s office, and told him about all the ideas I had for
the next X years --- then I paused, realizing he was paying my salary, and asked if he had
something in mind for me to work on. Don’s answer: Oh yes, I have some old Pioneer-
Venus data, but the work you describe sounds much more interesting --- giving me
essentially carte blanche to do whatever I liked to do.
I started collaborating with Steve Massie, Don’s other postdoc. We wrote a radiative
transfer program to analyze radio data of Jupiter’s atmosphere I was going to get at the
Very Large Array, during the very early days of its operation. Don loved it; I updated him
frequently; he gave advice, whenever needed. I still see him rocking in his chair, thumbs
behind his belt, legs not quite touching the floor –
To quote Steve Massie:
“When I think of Donald I think of him wearing his Pioneer Venus belt buckle. He wore
it very frequently in the early 1980s when I was a postdoc at the Lunar and Planetary
Laboratory. Donald clearly loved the solar system – all aspects – and he wore this
expression of his passionate interests on a daily basis.”
Steve and I frequently joined Don’s weekly lunch with several people from LPL and Kitt
Peak Observatory; Mike Belton was a regular here, as was Lyle Broadfoot, and Lloyd
Wallace. Usually we went to a local Mexican restaurant.
The topics at these lunches ranged from Mercury to Pluto, to chemical composition of
planetary bodies, to asteroid impacts.
Don had keen instrument knowledge in addition to a deep understanding of the
fundamentals of planetary atmospheres..
To quote Steve: “I heard it remarked that Enrico Fermi, in the physics community, was
unusual in being so broadly based. Don Hunten was in this unique ranking.
Don Hunten didn’t spend most of his time mired in the technical aspects of large
computer codes. Returning to the subject of Venus, he assigned me (Steve) a task of
calculating the night side vertical profiles of ionized and neutral species in the Venus
thermosphere. I remember a conversation in which he remarked that the flow going from
the day side to the night side was interesting since the flow likely became turbulent – he
did a back of the envelop Reynolds number calculation. His insight into the fundamentals
was very advanced, and it was very enjoyable to listen to how he thought things out.”
I remember quite vividly that he showed me the temperature-pressure calculations, and
chemical constituents as a function of altitude for the Earth’s atmosphere on his computer
screen, that he had just calculated. He was quite proud of that achievement. I think those
numbers were published in the updated Chamberlain and Hunten book on planetary
Don turned 60 during the year that the DPS was in Hawaii. His students made up Don
Hunten T-shirts, which we all wore to celebrate his birthday. We were one happy family.
Don, who always wore the same white shirt and greyish pants, + Pioneer-Venus belt
buckle, was wearing a colorful Hawaii shirt, a different one every day.
I never forget that one evening we all were in his hotel room, looking out over the ocean,
and Don remarked in his low carrying voice that we probably would see the green flash.
And indeed, we were awarded with the famous flash as soon as the Sun dipped below the
During those years they started building the Space Telescope Institute, and tenure track
positions were advertised, and scientists were invited to apply. Remember that this was in
the very early days, before the telescope was even launched. When I asked Don if he
thought I should apply, his answer was No, I should be able to get a better position
somewhere else. He mentioned that Larry Esposito had just turned down an offer from
the Institute to join the faculty at the Univ. of Colorado. So I did not apply.
I loved my years as a postdoc with Don, and Don was surely instrumental in getting me a
faculty position in Berkeley. I don’t know if I would have every gotten that without his
Steve suggests, and I fully support this idea, that the DPS should give a “Donald Hunten”
award, to an author who obtains a profound result using a maximum of physical
reasoning, and a modest amount of computational effort.