Happy Hundredth, Mildred!

Group photo of the 1932 IAU in Cambridge, with the Shapley family. Mildred is front row, second from right (I think)

Group photo of the 1932 IAU in Cambridge, with the Shapley family. Seventeen-year-old Mildred is front row, wearing the hat (I think). Harlow Shapley, director of the Harvard College Observatory, is between the two kids to her right, hat in lap.

I got an email from my friend (and fellow planetary scientist) Rick Binzel: "I just learned that Mildred Shapley Matthews (the lovable taskmaster and technical editor who drove the Space Science Series forward for decades) recently celebrated her 100th birthday."

Funny thing was, I was just telling someone about Mildred earlier that day. She was the editor of the University of Arizona Space Science series of books for many years. In fact, she edited my very first paper – a chapter in the Jupiter book – and did a fantastic job, making my prose much better and clearer.

She was also the very first person I ever met at the University of Arizona. I arrived late on a Saturday night for the Jupiter conference that was about to begin (this was May, 1975) and, seeing that there would be a walking trip up Sabino Canyon on Sunday morning, I managed to find the ride and met her on the trail. She was incredibly nice to this poor lost and somewhat jet-lagged incoming graduate student.

At a time when the Lunar and Planetary Lab was full of ... let's just say, "difficult personalities" ... she stood out as a really good person, someone who was less interested in her own career and ego and more interested in the science. I only later discovered that she was the daughter of the famous Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley.

But my favorite story occurred in 1979, after I had graduated and was working as a post-doc at Harvard (interestingly, in the building that's the backdrop of the photo above, not seen in this selection). I was back in Tucson for the first Asteroids meeting, and a JPLer had just gotten up to propose a mission to visit four asteroids. They were chosen not for their scientific interest but because they were easy to get to.

In the discussion afterwards, a grand old man of the field, Zdenek Kopal, got up to comment... "Two interesting things about one of the asteroids you have selected, 848. This is asteroid Mildred, named for the editor of the book who is sitting next to you up on the podium. The second thing to know is that it has been lost since 1916." (Which was the first time we realized how old Mildred was!)

848 Mildred was finally recovered in 1985.

Oh, one final thing. The ten-year-old boy to Mildred's right in the photo above is her little brother Lloyd, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in economics. He's still going strong at age 92...

Br. Guy Consolmagno

About Br. Guy Consolmagno

Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ is Director of the the Vatican Observatory and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he earned undergraduate and masters' degrees from MIT, and a Ph. D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona; he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard and MIT, served in the US Peace Corps (Kenya), and taught university physics at Lafayette College before entering the Jesuits in 1989.

At the Vatican Observatory since 1993, his research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies, observing Kuiper Belt comets with the Vatican's 1.8 meter telescope in Arizona, and applying his measure of meteorite physical properties to understanding asteroid origins and structure. Along with more than 200 scientific publications, he is the author of a number of popular books including Turn Left at Orion (with Dan Davis), and most recently Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial? (with Father Paul Mueller, SJ). He also has hosted science programs for BBC Radio 4, been interviewed in numerous documentary films, appeared on The Colbert Report, and for more than ten years he has written a monthly science column for the British Catholic magazine, The Tablet.

Dr. Consolmagno's work has taken him to every continent on Earth; for example, in 1996 he spent six weeks collecting meteorites with a NASA team on the blue ice regions of East Antarctica. He has served on the governing boards of the Meteoritical Society; the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (of which he was chair in 2006-2007); and IAU Commission 16 (Planets and Satellites). In 2000, the small bodies nomenclature committee of the IAU named an asteroid, 4597 Consolmagno, in recognition of his work. In 2014 he received the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences for excellence in public communication in planetary sciences.

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