Through the half-opened door of his dingy little office on the fourth floor of the University of California Berkeley astronomy department building, I see Carl Heiles standing in front of a table loaded with piles of papers.

“Hi Carl”, I say. Clutching a bunch of papers, he turns around and freezes. Then his mouth widens into a big happy smile, his eyes squint and slowly he speaks: “D a p . . . H a r t m a n n . . . ?!! What are you doing here?” I am passing through Berkeley on my trip to Silicon Valley, visiting my old friend Leo and just checking to see whether Carl is still around. “It is so good to see you. You haven’t changed a bit!”, Carl says. I take that as a compliment. “It is good to see you too, Carl. You look great!”

It has been five years since I last saw him. “How are you doing, Carl?” I ask. “Terrible”, he replies, “they made me director of the radio lab”. Apparently, that is not the greatest job in the world. But why would Carl occupy that position? He is 72 years old and little short of a legend, at least in my book. Surely he can do whatever he wants to? Indeed, but Carl is an extremely nice guy, and when he saw that he could help out the department, he did so unconditionally. Even at 72 he can stay on as professor of astronomy, as long as he teaches. How unlike Holland, where they unceremoniously kick you out at 65 and where teaching is very much looked down upon.

When I was working on my PhD thesis, Carl Heiles was my hero. Carl had pioneered the large scale surveying of Galactic neutral hydrogen at modest resolution 25 years earlier. Now I was using the latest technology (hardware) and the latest computer algorithms (software) to obliterate his work. Not really, of course, just like Einstein merely improved upon but did not obliterate Newton’s work. I could never have done what I did if Carl had not paved the way. Carl’s papers were always a joy to read. He is the only person I know who managed to obtain a 0th-order citation: in the references section of a paper he published in Astronomy & Astrophysics, he refers to that very same paper. It may have spun citation index machines into an infinite loop.

At a conference in Tucson, AZ in 1995 that Carl and I both attended, I called his room one night with the message: “I am holding a bottle of really good Scotch that has your name on it – wanna come over?” Carl declined. I didn’t understand it at the time, but people later told me that Carl’s hard drinking days were over; he had lived life to the max a bit too long. It was a time when I still thought I would live forever.

Carl is still my hero. When I grow up, I want to be just like him. I’m just afraid that I will never grow up.

Dap Hartmann is astronoom. Hij werkt als onderzoeker bij de faculteit Techniek, Bestuur en Management.

Columnist Dap Hartmann

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