Leon Lucy, R.I.P.

I have the unfortunate duty of using this blog to announce the death a couple of weeks ago of Professor Leon B Lucy, who had been a Visiting Professor working here at Imperial College from 1998.

Leon got his PhD in the early 1960s at the University of Manchester, and after postdoctoral positions in Europe and the US, worked at Columbia University and the European Southern Observatory over the years, before coming to Imperial. He made significant contributions to the study of the evolution of stars, understanding in particular how they lose mass over the course of their evolution, and how very close binary stars interact and evolve inside their common envelope of hot gas.

Perhaps most importantly, early in his career Leon realised how useful computers could be in astrophysics. He made two major methodological contributions to astrophysical simulations. First, he realised that by simulating randomised trajectories of single particles, he could take into account more physical processes that occur inside stars. This is now called “Monte Carlo Radiative Transfer” (scientists often use the term “Monte Carlo” — after the European gambling capital — for techniques using random numbers). He also invented the technique now called smoothed-particle hydrodynamics which models gases and fluids as aggregates of pseudo-particles, now applied to models of stars, galaxies, and the large scale structure of the Universe, as well as many uses outside of astrophysics.

Leon’s other major numerical contributions comprise advanced techniques for interpreting the complicated astronomical data we get from our telescopes. In this realm, he was most famous for developing the methods, now known as Lucy-Richardson deconvolution, that were used for correcting the distorted images from the Hubble Space Telescope, before NASA was able to send a team of astronauts to install correcting lenses in the early 1990s.

For all of this work Leon was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 2000. Since then, Leon kept working on data analysis and stellar astrophysics — even during his illness, he asked me to help organise the submission and editing of what turned out to be his final papers, on extracting information on binary-star orbits and (a subject dear to my heart) the statistics of testing scientific models.

Until the end of last year, Leon was a regular presence here at Imperial, always ready to contribute an occasionally curmudgeonly but always insightful comment on the science (and sociology) of nearly any topic in astrophysics. We hope that we will be able to appropriately memorialise his life and work here at Imperial and elsewhere. He is survived by his wife and daughter. He will be missed.