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Keith Noll
Photo by Zoe Ledbetter

Keith Noll

My first astronomical memory dates from early childhood. It was a warm summer evening and I was standing at my mother's side as she talked to our neighbor over the backyard fence. Looking up I suddenly noticed a bright streak moving across the sky. I could make out a green glowing disk with dark splotches as it flashed overhead. A few seconds later there was a loud boom. I was sure whatever it was had fallen in front of our house on Harrison street. Only many years later did I realize that I had seen a particularly bright meteor.

Perhaps that early experience played a role in my lifelong appreciation of the sky. As a teenager I would take long nighttime walks with our family dog, Penny, paying particular attention to the play of the moon in the clouds and the branches of the oak trees. I relished the view of the Milky Way from the dark beaches of Long Island. I remember my astonishment at seeing the zodiacal light as I drove the saddle road to the astronomer's dormitory on Mauna Kea. Each time I camp or go observing I take special pleasure in crisp nights with dark, star filled skies.

The spectacularly successful Viking and Voyager missions strongly influenced my choice to specialize in the study of planets and satellites. Seeing images of sunset from the surface of Mars or the violently swirling clouds of Jupiter inspired me. Now, as a professional astronomer, I attempt to decipher the compositional information contained in the complex infrared and ultraviolet spectra of these objects to gain some clues about their makeup and histories. Most exciting to me are the new frontiers of planetary astronomy. The recently discovered Kuiper Belt is a collection of primitive, icy planetesimals orbiting at the fringe of the solar system. And the equally recent discoveries of substellar objects beyond the solar system, extrasolar planets and brown dwarfs, has greatly expanded the opportunities to learn more about the origin of planets and, ultimately, ourselves.

Throughout my career I have been lucky in working with intelligent, honest, humorous, creative, and generous mentors, colleagues, and friends. With fewer than ten thousand astronomers in the world and only hundreds in each area of specialization, the social network of astronomy resembles that of a small town. If you don't know someone directly, you are almost sure to know a mutual acquaintance. It was through such a mutual friend that I encountered Chris Luginbuhl. My first question to my friend was whether, by chance, this fellow had grown up in Delaware. To my surprise, it turned out that, indeed, he was one of the children in the family that had lived three houses down the street from mine. Because we went to different schools, I never met Chris as a child, but we have since happily shared our fondness for the environs of the Brandywine river valley that we both explored in our teens and the beauties of the Arizona desert we discovered as adults. It has been a distinct pleasure to collaborate with Chris on this project.