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Thomas Ingerson died on Thursday the 8th of August, 2019.
Tom Ingerson was born on May 30, 1938. He died from Alzheimer’s disease on August 8, 2019, at the age of 81. Tom graduated from High School in El Paso, Texas, attended the University of California, Berkeley, and graduated with a degree in physics in 1960. While in high school he built rockets of his own design, and in college Tom worked at the White Sands Missile Range.
He then attended the University of Colorado Boulder and graduated with a Ph.D. in Physics in 1965. His dissertation was entitled “Gravitational Radiation in a Static Steady-State Cosmology” and he used to joke that he was not a “rocket scientist” but a theoretical cosmologist. However, he was a rocket scientist too. He was a man with an uncanny mind and wonderful personality. He made friends wherever he went, and as a professor at two universities and as an Explorer Scout Leader, he managed to guide many people throughout his life.
He was the professor of physics at Western New Mexico University, in Silver City, New Mexico, from 1964 until 1968 and formed a Boy Scout Explorer Post there that attracted some of the brightest minds that Silver City had to offer. His scouts included young men who went on to wonderful careers in a variety of fields. His scouts grew up to become physicists, magnetic science specialists, engineers, doctors, dentists, optometrists, business owners and other professionals. He encouraged people to express themselves, to explore, to read and learn, and to behave in an ethical manner.
He left Silver City and moved to Moscow, Idaho, where he taught physics at the University of Idaho. While there, he formed another Explorer Post and guided another group of young men into adulthood and success. His focus was more on travel, camping, learning, and personal growth rather than merit badges and advancing through the ranks of boy scouts.
His interests included: camping, cooking, playing the piano, reading, motorcycles, “ham” radios, electronic design and repair, and a huge variety of other activities. He could talk about anything but rarely lectured anyone except his students. His scouts were trained by experiences and when traveling, he would pair scouts off to be in charge of the cooking/cleaning/purchasing and laundry for a week at a time. There were also expectations that each scout would know a section of the area being traveled through and know as much as possible about the roads, the towns, the facilities, the activities and the local culture as they could learn. Each young man had a day of the week where he was in charge of decisions, another day as the navigator, and another day as advisor to the others. That did not prevent the rest of the group from wrestling in the back of his modified van and generally raising havoc wherever they went.
His travels with the Silver City troop included trips to Colorado, to the Yukon Territory in Canada, to Belize (then British Honduras), and to Panama. All those trips were basically camping trips with seven scouts and himself. There were also many hiking trips through the Gila National Forest, to the Chiracahua National Forest, cave exploring, trips to Kitt Peak National Observatory, floating down the Gila River on tubes, and short weekend camping trips. On one trip the scouts found themselves on top of Mogollon Baldy during a meteor shower and stayed up all night.
His incredibly active lifestyle continued while he lived in Moscow where he again formed an Explorer Post. He was once again in his comfort zone being the catalyst that allowed many young people to discover the wonders of knowledge and the world. This group ventured twice to Peru, three times to Mexico and Central America, and even once to the USSR, which led to some national media attention since this occurred in 1971 in the midst of the Cold War.
During a sabbatical leave from the University of Idaho in 1975, he worked at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) and lived in La Serena, Chile. Besides taking on technical challenges for the observatory, he of course became involved with the local scouting organization in La Serena, and travelled far and wide with them in Chile and Argentina. Following this year at CTIO, he took an extensive trip around the world accompanied by one of the Explorer Post members from Moscow. Together, they visited many Pacific islands and countries in Southeast Asia. Upon arriving in India, they travelled overland to England, and even crossed through Afghanistan. Here, they walked among camels and donkey carts along the ancient streets of Herat, lined with walls possibly thousands of years old, completely unaware that it would soon become ruins following the Soviet invasion that occurred just a few years later.
Once Tom tired of teaching, he decided to leave physics and from 1983 to 2001 he returned to work at CTIO in Chile. It was while he was living in Chile that he married his lovely wife and companion, Isabel Echenique Ingerson. They had three wonderful daughters: Tonya, Alexia and Zoe. Tom was about sixty when he had those girls, and he once said that you can still build wonderful things with old tools. He built those girls a castle fortress in their front yard and had all types of trees growing in his personal arboretum in the back yard. He still loved cooking and playing classical pieces on his piano.
He did freelance work from 2001 through 2006, and that included among other things the design of the upgrade to the Brazilian National Telescope located in Itajuba, Brazil. He was an electronics and design genius and found ways to improve optical telescopes with the use of photon counting using photodiodes to improve their sensitivity.
There is a book by Thomas A. Bass called The Eudaemonic Pie, which was published in 1985. This book chronicles the story of some of Tom’s former scouts in their design of a computer to assist them in winning at the roulette table in Las Vegas. Interviews with Tom are included in this book and provide an insight into his view of his own life and that of his scouts.
To be sure, everyone who knew Tom would have some loving or impactful memory or story to tell about knowing him. It is not just the world of physics and astronomy that has lost a brilliant star, it’s all of us who knew and loved him. He used a phrase to say goodbye to people, and so it will be used for people to say goodbye to him: Un abrazo a todos (a hug for everybody).
Obituary written by: Bruce Kennedy and Doyne Farmer