Cover photo for Vincent Beauchamp Wickwar's Obituary
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1943 Vincent 2022

Vincent Beauchamp Wickwar

September 4, 1943 — September 27, 2022

WICKWAR—Vincent Beauchamp. Physics Professor and Pioneer Aeronomer dies at 79. Vincent B. Wickwar, a longtime member of the Center for Atmospheric and Space Sciences and professor of physics at Utah State University, and an early pioneer in the field of aeronomy (the scientific study of the physics and chemistry of the upper atmosphere of the Earth and other planets), died on September 27th at his home in Logan, Utah. Dr. Wickwar moved to Logan in 1988 to join the faculty of USU to take advantage of the low level of light pollution in Northern Utah’s Cache Valley. Here he would create a unique, laser-based upper atmospheric observatory to study the complex conditions of the Earth’s uppermost atmosphere. Though early on, residents of Logan made frequent calls to authorities to inquire about the unusual green light overhead, the facility Dr. Wickwar built is now a fixture of Cache Valley with its beautiful green beam emanating from the top of the USU campus straight up into the night sky.

One of Dr. Wickwar’s major contributions early in his career to the field of aeronomy was to realize and encourage through both his leadership and example the merits of collaborative investigations that could be achieved by combining both radar and optical measurements to achieve a broader perspective on the atmospheric phenomena being studied.

At USU, Dr. Wickwar taught graduate courses in optics and aeronomy, and served over many years as a thesis advisor for multiple graduate students. He formed close personal and professional bonds with them and encouraged many, through his unique ability to inspire in them his own love of the underlying science, to pursue their own careers in these fields. He has been the principal investigator on numerous grants involving studies of the upper atmosphere employing lidar (light detecting and ranging) systems, photometers, Fabry-Perot interferometry, and incoherent-scatter (IS) radar. From 1973 to 1988, Dr. Wickwar was employed at SRI International in Menlo Park, California, where he was co-principal investigator of the Sondrestrom, Greenland based IS radar and principal investigator on numerous IS radar studies using data from the Arecibo (Puerto Rico), Chatanika (Alaska) / Sondrestrom, EISCAT (European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association’s IS radar systems in Northern Scandinavia), Millstone Hill (Massachusetts), and St. Santin (Aveyron, France) radars. These studies included the joint American-French plasma line experiments at high latitudes and investigations of photoelectrons and secondary electrons.

Dr. Wickwar’s field of aeronomy was created in the wake of the US-USSR nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963, with the US wanting to better understand the possible effects of high altitude nuclear detonations on long-range communications. By using the recently created IS radar systems, scientists were able for the first time to observe the ionospheric physics associated with high altitude detonations. The thinking at the time was that if the US or others were to ever repeat the high altitude nuclear tests or, more ominously, in the event of a nuclear war, an IS radar (with the capability of measuring plasma densities, temperatures, and motions) would be a much better diagnostic of the fundamental processes that produced the observed effects on communications. Modern applications of these technologies are employed to better understand global climate changes, among other natural phenomena.

Dr. Wickwar also served as a correlative investigator on the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite team and as a guest investigator on the Atmospheric Explorer and Dynamic Explorer satellite teams. He developed both hardware and software for data acquisition and analysis and was instrumental in establishing the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s IS data base, which developed into the CEDAR (Coupling, Energetics, and Dynamics of Atmospheric Regions) data base. During a 2-year leave-of-absence from SRI in the early 1980s, Dr. Wickwar served as the National Science Foundation Program Director for Aeronomy. He has collaborated extensively with French aeronomers at both the University of Grenoble and France’s Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique.

Dr. Wickwar was an expert in esoteric scientific innovations and discoveries, but also thoroughly at ease with and enjoyed interacting with non-science focused students, and taught two beloved introduction to sciences course at USU for undergraduate students.

Born in New London, Connecticut, in 1943, Dr. Wickwar’s early years were spent in New York City, where his British-born father William Hardy Wickwar worked at the United Nations and mother Margaret Wickwar as a social worker and later a museum docent. Dr. Wickwar’s formative years were spent in Princeton, New Jersey, where as a young man he occasionally encountered Albert Einstein, who was an early inspiration for Dr. Wickwar’s lifetime love of physics. Dr. Wickwar’s father’s work as an international civil servant at one point took Dr. Wickwar to Lebanon, where he learned French at the Jesuit School of Beirut. Upon returning to the US, he attended Pomfret School in Connecticut, and later gained admission to Harvard College’s Class of 1965 where he majored in Physics. He received a PhD in Space Physics at Rice University in 1971 under the advisement of William E. Gordon who was one of the creators of the Arecibo IS radar in Puerto Rico. The Arecibo radar, no longer in operation, was the largest of its kind, and was used for numerous ionospheric and astronomical discoveries. Dr. Wickwar was one of the first students to complete their PhD research using this unparalleled instrument, which on the occasion of its fortieth anniversary was named both a “Milestone in Electrical Engineering and Computing” and also a “Mechanical Engineering Landmark.” Dr. Wickwar also performed postdoctoral research at Yale University.

Dr. Wickwar maintained that from an early age his parents nurtured his many hobbies, including photography, which became a lifetime passion. His interest in photography served as his early introduction to optics, the underlying basis for the complex lidar and other optics-based systems he employed in his academic and research studies. During his undergraduate study at Harvard, his passion for photography led him to spend two summers in Sardis, Turkey, where he documented with photos the Sardis excavation, one of the longest running academic excavations that commenced in 1910 and is still ongoing today. He greatly enjoyed the outdoors, both hiking and camping, and was particularly enthralled by the natural wonder of Utah.

At the time of his death, Dr. Wickwar was one of the principal investigators in a large multi-university collaborative grant from the Defense Advanced Research Program Agency (DARPA) to employ Dr. Wickwar’s lidar system to collect detailed density and temperature measurements from the mesopause region – the junction between Earth’s upper atmosphere and space.

In Logan, Dr. Wickwar was actively involved in the community, serving for a number of years as the chair of the Cache Valley Democrats and an active member of the Men’s Club. He was also involved in the Logan Downtown Alliance, as a result of some of his and his wife Gina’s many outside commercial business interests. In addition, Dr. Wickwar served two terms as President of the USU Faculty Senate. He was a well known figure on the USU campus, and a decades-long season ticket holder for the Aggie football team.

Dr. Wickwar leaves behind his wife Gina (née Virginia Ashbacker), and his stepchildren with their spouses, Kristopher David Brown and Rachel Moritt Brown of New York City, New York; Melody Brown Burkins and Derek Burkins of East Thetford, Vermont; and Nathaniel Scott Brown and Tina Tsiakalis of Seattle, Washington. He also leaves six grandchildren: Ari Moritt Brown and Noa Moritt Brown of New York City; Riley Logan Burkins and Porter Brown Burkins of East Thetford; and Zacharias Tsiakalis-Brown and Michael Tsiakalis-Brown of Seattle, as well as his two beloved goldendoodles Rhett and Sophie.

No funeral is planned, but a memorial will be scheduled. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Utah State University – Designation: College of Science, Department of Physics, Area of Greatest Need. Go to: https://www.givecampus.com/campaigns/15211/donations/new or mail check to: University Advancement Utah State University, 1540 Old Main Hill 
Logan, Utah 84322
Arrangements by Allen-Hall Mortuary. www.allenmortuaries.com
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