Obituary: Judy Young, Astronomer Who Built Campus Sunwheel

Judy Young
Young sights the design of the Sunwheel in 1997 (Stan Sherer photo)
Young at a solstice viewing at the Sunwheel

Judy Young, 61, of Amherst, former professor of astronomy and the builder of the UMass Sunwheel, died May 23 after a long illness.

While Young was recognized nationally for her research on star formation, locally she was known as the creator of the Sunwheel, a stone circle whose 8-10-foot standing stones line up with the rising and setting sun during solstices and equinoxes. She began building the Sunwheel in 1997 near McGuirk Alumni Stadium and for more than 15 years led seasonal sunrise and sunset gatherings at the site, sharing her knowledge and passion for science and making the connections between sky and Earth real for more than 8,000 visitors. In 2000, the campus recognized her work with the Distinguished Academic Outreach Award.

She was born in Washington, D.C., the daughter of two scientists. Inspired by her mother, an astronomer who proved the existence of dark matter, she pursued studies in astronomy at Harvard University, where she received her B.A. with honors, and the University of Minnesota, where she earned her M.S. and Ph.D. in physics.

She came to UMass Amherst in 1979 as a postdoctoral research associate at the Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory, where she collaborated with Nick Z. Scoville on a study measuring carbon monoxide and cold gas content of galaxies. They discovered the distribution of gas and light is proportional in galaxies. In 1982, the American Astronomical Society recognized the work by awarding her the Annie J. Cannon Prize for promising research by a young woman astronomer.

She was a visiting assistant professor in physics and astronomy from 1982-84, when she was appointed an assistant professor.

In 1986, the American Physical Society honored Young as the best young physicist in the world with the inaugural Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award. Later that year, she was awarded a three-year Sloan Research Fellowship.

Young was awarded tenure and promoted to associate professor in 1989.

In 1991, she was a James Clerk Maxwell Telescope Fellow at the University of Hawaii. Two years later, she was promoted to professor, a position she held until last year.

She was a member of the American Astronomical Society, International Astronomical Union, American Physical Society, Association for Women in Science, and the North American Sundial Society.

In 2006, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, the cancer that claimed the life of her father. As her health challenges increased, she continued for many years to dedicate herself to teaching and sharing her insights. Her blog, Living Joyfully With What Is, shares a series of thoughts on her journey and her determination to enjoy what life has to offer in spite (and because) of its brevity.

She also cultivated a profound connection with nature, and enjoyed backpacking, biking, hiking and simply being outside. Her garden is a Certified Wildlife Habitat and was featured in the Amherst Garden Tour.

She leaves her daughter Laura Little; her mother Vera Rubin; her three brothers, David, Karl and Allan Rubin, and a network of family, friends and lifelong learners around the world.

Two services will be held to celebrate Young’s life and honor her memory; one will be held outdoors Wednesday, June 4 at 7 p.m. at the UMass Sunwheel, rain or shine, and another Thursday, June 5 at 10 a.m. at the Jewish Community of Amherst, 742 Main St. Both are open to the public. All are encouraged to wear vibrant colors in celebration of life.

Memorial donations may be made to the Nature Conservancy.



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