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UC Berkeley Press Release

Avid astronomer, teacher David Cudaback has died

 David Cudaback
David Cudaback resting in the "winter window" of Sunstones II, a sculpture at the Lawrence Hall of Science that he helped design with sculptor Richard O'Hanlon.

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– David Dill Cudaback, an astronomer who put so much energy into his teaching that his students at the University of California, Berkeley, named a laboratory after him, died in his Oakland home July 23 after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 77.

Cudaback, a senior lecturer emeritus in astronomy, was known to decades of astronomy students for his enthusiasm and eagerness to share the wonders of astronomy. As he switched from radio astronomy research to full time teaching in the 1980s, he noticed a lack of laboratory experience among astronomy majors, so he developed a hands-on course at UC Berkeley to teach the fundamentals of observational astronomy.

Each class built and used a radio telescope atop Campbell Hall, home of the astronomy department, from which students could study the sky - rain or shine. Using donated computers, they then performed the image processing needed to convert their data to pictures. The course, created in 1987, won an Educational Initiatives Award from the campus in 1995.

As a result of that class, significant numbers of UC Berkeley students who hadn't thought of a career in science were "seduced into being committed science majors, while many top-level students. decided to enter graduate school in astronomy programs," astronomy professor and chair Jonathan Arons said at the time of the award.

To house the new lab, Cudaback "took over an unused room on the seventh floor of Campbell Hall," said Cudaback's daughter, Cynthia Cudaback, an assistant professor of oceanography at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. A plaque mounted outside that teaching lab, the David D. Cudaback Undergraduate Astronomy Laboratory, reads, "A candle loses none of its flame in lighting another candle."

Another award, the Donald Sterling Noyce Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, was given to Cudaback in 1994. The prize goes each year to a UC Berkeley faculty member in the physical sciences.

Cudaback's passion for astronomy also led to a collaboration with the late artist Richard O'Hanlon, a former UC Berkeley professor of art, on three sculptures incorporating planes and angles with astronomical significance. Sunstones I, which marks the height of the sun at noon at different seasons, was placed at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

The most visible astronomical sculpture, however, is Sunstones II, a 15-foot, 16-ton granite sculpture installed in 1979 outside UC Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science. Sight lines Cudaback incorporated in O'Hanlon's piece allow visitors to see seasonal events such as the northern- and southern-most setting of the sun at the solstices; the northern- and southern-most setting of the moon in its 18-year cycle; and the northern and southern-most settings of the planets in a cycle spanning tens of thousands of years. Cudaback and many friends gathered for a quarter century at the sculpture to toast the sunset on winter solstice.

Cudaback was born Jan. 18, 1929, and raised in Napa, Calif., the younger of two boys helping with the family chicken ranch. At Napa High School, he developed a keen interest in all things scientific and became the first student from Napa ever to win a National Westinghouse Science Foundation Scholarship.

Choosing to attend UC Berkeley, he began his career the summer after high school in a campus chemistry lab. He continued to work in various labs on campus while earning his undergraduate degree in physics, which he completed in 1951. After a year at Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, he returned to UC Berkeley to pursue graduate studies, earning a Ph.D. in astronomy in 1962. He remained in the department, working over the course of 30 years as an experimentalist at visible, infrared and radio wavelengths.

"These were days of excitement in astronomy, where by simply going to wavelengths previously inaccessible, people were making fundamental discoveries," said Cudaback's longtime friend Jerry Hudson, a former programmer and colleague in UC Berkeley's Radio Astronomy Laboratory who helped him set up the undergraduate lab at UC Berkeley. "Using the recently discovered 18-centimeter line of the hydroxyl molecule, star formation regions were studied by radio astronomers - a lot of the observations coming from Berkeley's Hat Creek Radio Observatory."

Cudaback's interest in the problems caused by the earth's atmosphere, which makes stars fuzzy, engendered a passion for high altitude telescope sites that minimize atmospheric problems. As the world's largest telescope was being planned, he volunteered to scout out a high-altitude site in California's White Mountains. The 10-meter Keck Telescopes instead were built in Hawaii on top of a 13,790-foot volcano, Mauna Kea.

Cudaback's high-altitude observing allowed him to indulge another love: hiking in the mountains, mostly above timberline. There, he also took the opportunity to study human response at high altitudes to low oxygen levels. He recommended that astronomers' work areas have a higher than normal fraction of oxygen, which anticipated the use today of oxygen pumps by those working at mountaintop observatories like Keck.

After he retired in 1994, Cudaback continued to teach as a volunteer for several years.

Cudaback was an active and devoted member of the Sierra Club, and he met his future wife in 1952 at a dance at the Donner Summit Sierra Club ski lodge. He also was a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences and of Oakland's Chabot Space & Science Center. Among his other passions were flying and mountain sports, such as skiing and climbing.

Cudaback had a longtime association with Montclair Presbyterian Church, where he maintained a position he often referred to as the "village atheist." Though he felt that the "universe was too big for a biblical 'god,'" his daughter said, he enjoyed debating the existence of God. "After 35 years as the beloved church astronomer and atheist, he has gone to meet his maker. They should have a very interesting conversation," she quipped.

He is survived by his wife, Dorothea "Dot" Cudaback of Oakland; and daughter, Cynthia, of Raleigh, N.C. He had one grandson.

A memorial service will be on Sunday, Aug. 6, at 3 p.m. at Montclair Presbyterian Church, 5701 Thornhill Dr., Oakland, followed by a reception.

The family asks that, in lieu of flowers, friends make a small contribution to "Friends of Berkeley Astronomy," c/o Astronomy Department, UC Berkeley, 601 Campbell Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720-3411; or to research on Parkinson's disease.