11 January 2012

Dr Filippenko's Dedication of his SJAA Talk

Before too much time slips by after Dr. Alex Filippenko's talk at last Saturday's SJAA meeting, I would like to provide a recap of the exciting event.  But I will do that separately; right now, I'd like to let you know that Dr. Filippenko dedicated his talk to a close friend and colleague of his who recently passed, Weidong Li. Weidong was described by Alex as instrumental and invaluable to his research. Alex also mentioned that Weidong's family is now struggling financially and could use some assistance.  He said that a web site has been established in Weidong's memory and to manage donations. The SJAA would like to make a respectful request to its membership that if it's at all possible, please help Weidong's family by making a donation at the web site above, either by sending a check or using PayPal.

Dr. Filippenko wrote the following about the time he was able to spend with Weidong.

Weidong and the Lick Observatory Supernova Search
by Alex Filippenko, Professor of Astronomy, UC Berkeley

In 1996, my team at UC Berkeley completed the Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope (KAIT) at Lick Observatory, a 0.76-meter robotic reflector whose purpose was to discover and monitor supernovae (exploding stars). Dick Treffers (my chief engineer) made most of the hardware work correctly, and Michael Richmond (my graduate student) had written much of the software several years earlier. We found our first supernova (SN 1997bs) in April 1997; see http://stupendous.rit.edu/richmond/kait/ngc3627.html .

But progress on our Lick Observatory Supernova Search (LOSS)  was slow; I didn't have anyone dedicated full time to the project. So, I advertized for a postdoctoral researcher and was delighted when Weidong Li, a young graduate at the Beijing Astronomical Observatory, applied for the job. I knew that Weidong led a team that found SN 1996W and several other supernovae using a telescope quite similar to KAIT. (I think this makes him the first Chinese astronomer to discover a supernova since 1054 AD!) I offered him the position and was delighted when he accepted.

Weidong arrived at UC Berkeley in September 1997, and though it took him a few months to improve the software enough, in March 1998 he found SN 1998W and SN 1998Y, and LOSS really got going. The rest, as they say, is history: LOSS became, for about a decade, the world's most successful nearby supernova
search, responsible for about 40% of those found each year; see http://astro.berkeley.edu/bait/public_html/kait.html .
In total, it discovered almost 900 supernovae, many of which were quite young and thus scientifically most valuable. All of this was due to Weidong's incredible dedication, knowledge, ability, and enthusiasm. I have rarely met anyone as driven and passionate about their work; whenever there were problems with KAIT, for example, he would drive up to Lick Observatory and try to fix them, sometimes spending several days on the
mountain with little sleep. If a really time-critical and  exciting event came up, like a gamma-ray burst, he would stay up late at home, making sure KAIT conducted a thorough set of follow-up observations of the optical afterglow. I greatly admired him for all that he did.

Weidong became my right-hand man, leading LOSS and also collaborating with me on a very large number of research papers. I trusted him completely with everything KAIT did, and gave him nearly full authority in running LOSS. He also played a large role (and in many cases the leading role) in mentoring many dozens of undergraduate students who checked the KAIT supernova candidates each day, as well as some graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in my group. For example, he was the main advisor to Jesse Leaman, whose PhD thesis was the supernova rate in galaxies as derived from LOSS. Weidong and I were very proud that he played such a major part in developing the careers of so many young new scholars.

In public and technical presentations, I highlighted Weidong's enormous contributions, joking that my main goal each year was to secure his funding, and also that KAIT/LOSS would completely fall apart if he were to be "hit by a bus." I always worried that he might be lured away from me by another research group, or by a higher paying nonacademic job... but I couldn't imagine that the world would lose him so suddenly, forever.

Weidong was a great astronomer and a wonderful friend. In many ways he was irreplaceable, and my  research team will never be the same without him. He was also a very warm, generous, cheerful person who wanted to enrich the lives of others and make them happy. He had amazing spirit, and was tremendously excited about astronomy.  It's difficult to believe that he is no longer with us, and his unexpected, tragic departure has created a hole in my heart that will never again be filled.

Farewell, my dear Weidong. We had an amazing 14 years doing science together, and I'll always cherish your memory.

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