Monday, 14 August 2017

Toomas Karmo: Prof. Robert F. Garrison Remembered (1936-05-09/2017-08-13)

From left: the late Prof. Robert F. Garrison (University of Toronto Dept of Astronomy and Astrophysics; RASC President, 2000-2002), Prof. Rajiv Gupta RASC President, 2002-2004), Prof. John Percy (University of Toronto Dept. of Astronomy and Astrophysics; RASC President, 1978-1980), and Mr James Edgar (RASC President, 2014-2016), at the banquet for the 2003  National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Awards for Science Promotion. Details, with a listing of all the 2003 recipients - RASC was one of five that year - are at RASC's own reminiscences of the intricate application process are  at (in a joint Percy-Edgar article, typeset at pp. 42 ff). Mr Edgar, who kindly e-mailed me the photograph this week upon learning of our mutual loss, has also kindly agreed to my uploading it here. He recalls that Prof. Garrison, mindful of Mr Edgar's four decades of service with a Crown corporation, the Canadian National Railway Company, had recommended Mr Edgar's attending in a locomotive-engineer overall. (Mr Edgar was active both in locomotive operations and in personnel classroom instruction.) In the event, however, Mr Edgar judged it prudent to imitate his colleagues in looking less Crown-Corporation practical than desk-federal. 
Quality assessment:

On the 5-point scale current in Estonia, and surely in nearby nations, and familiar to observers of the academic arrangements of the late, unlamented, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (applying the easy and lax standards Kmo deploys in his grubby imaginary "Aleksandr Stepanovitsh Popovi nimeline sangarliku raadio instituut" (the "Alexandr Stepanovitch Popov Institute of Heroic Radio") and his  grubby imaginary "Nikolai Ivanovitsh Lobatshevski nimeline sotsalitsliku matemaatika instituut" (the "Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky Institute of Socialist Mathematics") - where, on the lax and easy grading philosophy of the twin Institutes, 1/5 is "epic fail", 2/5 is "failure not so disastrous as to be epic", 3/5 is "mediocre pass", 4/5 is "good", and 5/5 is "excellent"): 4/5. Justification: There was enough time to write out the  necessary points to reasonable length.

Revision history:
All times in these blog "revision histories" are stated in UTC (Universal Coordinated Time/ Temps Universel Coordoné,  a precisification of the old GMT, or "Greenwich Mean Time"), in the ISO-prescribed YYYYMMDDThhmmZ timestamping format. UTC currently leads Toronto civil time by 4 hours and currently lags Tallinn civil time by 3 hours.
  • 20170819T023123Z/version 3.4.0: Kmo found himself able, on the strength of his already existing notes, to add exact birthdate to posting title.  Kmo reserved the right to make minor, nonsubstantive, purely cosmetic, tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 3.4.1, 3.4.2, 3.4.3, ... . 
  • 20170817T1620Z/version 3.3.0: Kmo added information on the HD21699-project observing run at DDO, on the MK classification system (adding conceptual remarks on the more general "MK Process"), and on membership headcount at the Royal Astronomical Association of New Zealand and the Verein der Strenfreunde. He reserved the right to make minor, nonsubstantive, purely cosmetic, tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 3.3.1, 3.3.2, 3.3.3, ... . 
  • 20170815T2332Z/version 3.2.0: Kmo made some small corrections (most notably changing the RASC membership estimate from 4600 to 5100). He reserved the right to make minor, nonsubstantive, purely cosmetic, tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 3.2.1, 3.2.2, 3.2.3, ... . 
  • 20170815T2116Z/version 3.1.0: Kmo repaired a couple of broken hyperlinks and added an account of Prof. Garrison's UTSO contribution. He reserved the right to make minor, nonsubstantive, purely cosmetic, tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 3.1.1, 3.1.2, 3.1.3, ... . 
  • 20170815T2000Z/version 3.0.0: Kmo finished generated a coherent full-sentences essay. He reserved the right to make minor, nonsubstantive, purely cosmetic, tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 3.0.1, 3.0.2, 3.0.3, ... . 
  • 20170815T1507Z/version 2.1.0: Kmo added to the outline some remarks on RASC. He hoped to finish generating a coherent full-sentences essay by 20170815T1800Z or 20170815T20000Z or so.
  • 20170815T0306Z/version 2.0.0: Kmo was able to improve the outline, bringing it to a nearly final state. He realized to his grief that he would be able to finish converting it into a coherent full-sentences essay only later, perhaps around 20170815T1800Z.
  • 20170815T0036Z/version 1.0.0: Kmo had time to upload just a rough outline. He hoped to finish converting this into a coherent full-sentences essay at some point in the next 4 hours.
[CAUTION: A bug in the blogger server-side software has in some past months shown a propensity to insert inappropriate whitespace at some points in some of my posted essays. If a screen seems to end in empty space, keep scrolling down. The end of the posting is not reached until the usual blogger "Posted by Toomas (Tom) Karmo at" appears. - The blogger software has also shown a propensity, at any rate when coupled with my erstwhile, out-of-date, Web-authoring uploading browser, to generate HTML that gets formatted in different ways on different downloading browsers. Some downloading browsers have sometimes perhaps not correctly read in the entirety of the "Cascading Style Sheets"  (CSS) which on all ordinary Web servers control the browser placement of margins, sidebars, and the like. If you suspect CSS problems in your particular browser, be patient: it is probable that while some content has been shoved into some odd place (for instance, down to the bottom of your browser, where it ought to appear in the right-hand margin), all the server content has been pushed down into your browser in some place or other. - Finally, there may be blogger vagaries, outside my control, in font sizing or interlinear spacing or right-margin justification. - Anyone inclined to help with trouble-shooting, or to offer other kinds of technical advice, is welcome to write me via]

Sad news from the University of Toronto has to be addressed this week. The news obliges me to defer to next week the plan I had previously had, namely to upload now a further installment of my long essay in the analytical philosophy of perception and action.


Just before UTC=20170813T1400Z, Prof. Robert F. Garrison passed away peacefully at his Toronto home, aged 81, with much of his family near. Prof. Garrison had qualified doctorally at Chicago in 1966. He had taken up an appointment at the University of Toronto in 1968, being at his death fifteen or so years into his retirement.


I began working with Prof. Garrison in the University of Toronto academic year 1998/1999, as his fourth-year project supervisee. We studied the hot, helium-weak star HD21699, finding a schizoid spectral-classification profile (but not publishing our findings). Furnished by Prof. Garrison with the necessary DDO (David Dunlap Observatory) visitor privileges, I took spectrograms of HD21699 at the usual Morgan-Kennan passband (in the blue end of the spectrum), and at probably three other wavelength passbands, out to near-IR. I also took for each passband the necessary grid of MK comparison spectrograms. In later years, I served Prof. Garrison as a research assistant, in a combination of unpaid and NSERC-financed work, with much dome attendance - at that stage still in the DDO-visitor "Observer" rather than in the DDO "Telescope Operator" slot.


Prof. Garrison had a gift which I have also noticed in one or two others. He was capable of causing things to go well in the lives of the people around him, almost unreflectively and unconsciously. I wish to focus on this special gift first, taking an illustration from outside astronomy. 

When I was volunteering on an Estonian-language book project around 1998 or 2000 or 2002, Prof. Garrison, while himself lacking Estonian (he had Spanish, and perhaps by-then-rusted Russian) happened during some European travels to get into conversation (in English? in Russian? in Russlish?) with an elderly Estonian engineer. The engineer turned out to have been one of the half-dozen people mainly responsible for the revival of heavy industry in Soviet-occupied Estonia in 1946 or 1945 or late 1944. (As I recall the story, the engineer, having found a zackelfleim reciprocating narrow-bore zinklefleimer, or something of the kind, either in smashed-up Tallinn or within feasible reach of smashed-up Tallinn, said to himself, "Well, fine; using this tool, we can make the other necessary tools.") Prof. Garrison, effecting a kind of introduction-by-letter, brought the engineer and me into Estonian-language contact, to the benefit of the eventual book content. It all happened so casually, with Prof. Garrison seemingly having to do so little.


The fragility of scientific traditions is perhaps not always appreciated.  In theory, everything important gets written up in the peer-reviewed journals, allowing the new generations of workers to educate themselves in a given scientific tradition simply through reading. In reality, however, active interpersonal, intergenerational, contact is needed, so that the younger workers know not only what to read at what level of diligence, but also what questions have not been adequately covered. Such discussions may on occasion reveal even lurking, underadvertised, mathematical or philosophical-conceptual problems, liable eventually to call for the abandonment of an entire entrenched scientific paradigm. 

In science as at Scotland Yard, large issues can turn on minutiae. A foundational tool in astrophysics is the two-dimensional Morgan-Keenan stellar classification scheme, with its seven principal O, B, F, G, K, M (or nowadays ten principal - O, B, A, F, G, K, M, L, T, Y - "oh be a fine gymnast, kiss me like this, yowee") "temperature types" on the one axis and its six principal VI, V, IV, III, II, I "luminosity classes" on the other. It is easy for this taxonomic grid to be misunderstood and misapplied. One might even fear some gradual, unnoticed, drift in the scheme - akin to inflation in economics, or to a conceivable shift in legal doctrine as one aging generation of court judges and law-school lecturers retires in favour of another. Prof. Garrison, mindful of the potential intergenerational problem, dedicated a significant part of his career to securing the nuts-and-bolts stability of the MK scheme, at all points mindful of its empirical basis in the "ostensive definitions" dear to Wittgensteinean analytical philosophers. He stressed in his teaching and writing that more fundamental than the grid itself is the subject-neutral "MK Process", which involves anchoring each of the grid-bin definitions in carefully selected physical ostensive-definition specimens. (Where the subject becomes astronomy, the specimens become the carefully selected specimen stars.) He stressed that keeping the grid empirically anchored, and therefore as free as possible from theoretical assumptions, would maximize its utility as a tool for ultimate use by theorists. (And even within the domain of empirical phenomenology, as opposed to astrophysical theory, he liked a wonderfully vivid word, "confrontation": we are already obliged, he said, to inspect, at the humble level of phenomenology the "confrontation" between (a) the empirical MK spectroscopy classification of a lone star, or again of some stellar population like a cluster, with (b) the empirical classification entailed for the lone star or the stellar population by one or the other of the available systems of photometry - at it might be, the Morgan-Johnson-originated UBVRI, or again the Fernie-et al. DDO System, or again Strömgren-Crawford  uvbyβ.)  

It was in fact characteristic of the somewhat self-effacing Prof. Garrison that he should have devoted so much of his working life to a task so far from the scientific headlines, in other words so lacking in glamour. Prof. Garrison was well positioned to take up his self-chosen (and rather thankless) burden, having from his 1960s graduate-school Yerkes Observatory connection onward worked both with Morgan  (William Wilson Morgan, 1906-1994) and with Keenan (Philip Childs Keenan, 1908-2000). His torch, or burden, would now seem to have passed into safe hands. Two of his students, Fr Chris Corbally (Ph.D. from University of Toronto, perhaps 1983) and Prof. Richard Gray (Ph.D. from University of Toronto, perhaps 1986) have written the currently authoritative book on the Morgan-Kennan formalism (Gray and Corbally, Stellar Spectral Classification (Princeton, 2009)). They are in their turn serving in the training, administration, and mentoring of an upcoming generation.


It is appropriate to quote almost all of Prof. Garrison's own research description, which he and I constructed together a dozen or so years ago for his I leave out only some minor remarks on one of his books, and a brief reference to his collaboration with the already-mentioned Gray and Corbally: 

The primary aims of my research are investigation of the spiral structure of the Milky Way Galaxy, analysis of the stellar content of star clusters and galaxy nuclei, and the discovery and description of peculiar and variable stars. Most astronomers use, in some way, the fundamental information provided by the classification of stellar spectra. Spectral classification is an extremely powerful tool for describing the important astrophysical characteristics of stars and stellar systems. The MK System, developed by Morgan and Keenan, is virtually the only one used today, and Toronto is a major centre for research in this field.

The general thrust of my work has been the development and maintenance of a centre in the field of MK spectral classification at the David Dunlap Observatory (DDO). To this end, 6 classification-dispersion (100 Ångström/mm) spectrographs have been built and placed at various facilities around the world, including DDO, the recommissioned El Leoncito (Argentina) former 60-cm UTSO (Chile) telescope, and the Mexican National Observatory in Baja California. These spectrographs are being used for taking spectra of many types of stars for fundamental work on the classification system itself and for surveys using the system.

Research initiatives now essentially completed by me and my associates include

  • using the CCD spectrograph in Chile for carefully translating the MK System of stellar classification from the photographic to the digital dialect
  • developing and testing computerized pattern-recognition techniques for automated classification of large numbers of stars, with M. Kurtz (Center for Astrophysics, Harvard) and J. LaSala (University of Southern Maine)

Research initiatives actively pursued by me and my associates include

  • extending the MK classification process to the ultraviolet, red, and infrared wavelength regions
  • surveying the nearby stars ("NStars") closer than 47 parsecs and of spectral types earlier than M0
  • defining a hierarchy of standards, in a framework comprising anchor points, primary standards, secondary standards, and peculiar-star prototypes

Maintenance and refinement of the MK System is an ongoing process for a few, needed to keep the system useful for others. Many of the pitfalls of dealing with digital data have been discovered and recently accommodated within the system, with the result that the classification process is fundamentally and dramatically improved. Our emphasis has now shifted to data and results: I and my associates are working on several papers using reconnaissance techniques for discovery and investigation of interesting peculiar stars.


Because I am one of the principal workers in the field of MK spectral classification, I often get requests for MK types from my own spectra, or for information on types in the literature. I have a very extensive collection of stellar spectra (comprising photographic and digital spectra of about 10,000 stars, of which 5,000 have been published) as well as a catalogue of MK types. This computerized catalogue, representing a large investment of time, does not appear in my list of publications. However, the responses to the requests, and the catalogue data, are useful in many subfields in astronomy. New stars are being added continually. Indeed, current observations are essential for the maintenance of the reference frame and the database. For example, I have supplied types for all stars brighter than apparent B magnitude 4.5 in the Michigan Spectral Catalogue (the 2-dimensional successor to the HD Catalogue).



The "computerized catalogue" is for me a point of personal worry and personal grief. The catalogue (which, I admit, I never worked with in a scientifically significant way) ran on one of the major 1990s commercial personal-computer SQL databases, I am 95% certain from IBM. Prof. Garrison and I never did get it ported to what would nowadays be more appropriate, the open-source MySQL, or perhaps still better (because more anchored in the open-source movement, and now prominent in Debian GNU/Linux) MariaDB. (At are troubling references to high commercial politics, and to the timestamping UTC=20380119T031407Z overrun problem. MariaDB is for its part discussed in positive terms at We did chat from time to time about the advisability of porting, forever finding other, more urgent work to do. 

To make matters worse, the database ran on OS/2, rather than on one of the more familiar operating systems. As Prof. Garrison's private Linux technician, I was the de facto sysadmin for two office machines, and There was also a rather elaborate home machine, largely or entirely on Microsoft, with which I had relatively little to do. If I recall correctly (I am only 70% sure of this sequence of points), the database was kept on just one machine, and this machine was, and this machine had the dismal distinction of being not double- but actually triple-boot (for some Microsoft; for some Linux, I suspect either RedHat or Mandrake rather than the technically preferred Debian; and for the comparatively obscure OS/2). 

We never worked hard enough even on backing up the database. I am supposed to have somewhere in my lodging one or two USB thumbdrives with the database binaries, as a first crude, circa-2005, effort at backup. To my deep grief and chagrin, however, I reflect that there is now a 50% probability that I have misplaced it or them. Later, it will be necessary for me to confer with infotech personnel in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and with Prof. Garrison's erstwhile Ph.D. students Dr Ian Shelton and Dr Tuba Koktay, and with Prof. Garrison's family, to see what (if anything) can now be done. Could it be that some others, who possibly worked a little more closely with Prof. Garrison than I did, and perhaps differed from me in making scientific use of the database, did more than I myself managed to do in my capacity as occasional technician? 


Happier than the conceivably lost database are the formal publications - though, as I have already remarked in this blog posting, formal scientific publications can be only one part of the intergenerational heritage-conservation process. Prof. Garrison and I uploaded a rather good bibliography, which I will not reproduce in full here, at For present purposes, it suffices to cite from it just Prof. Garrison's two edited or co-edited books, and to add as a third point the retirement Festschrift published in his honour: 

  • Garrison, R. F. (ed.), The MK Process and Stellar Classification (Toronto: David Dunlap Observatory and University of Toronto, 1984)
  • Corbally, C.J., R.O. Gray, and R.F. Garrison (eds.), The MK Process at 50 Years: A Powerful Tool for Astrophysical Insight (Astronomical Society of the Pacific Conference Series 60 (1994))
  • Gray, R.O, Corbally, C.J., and Philip, A.G.D. (eds.), The Garrison Festschrift: held in Tucson, Arizona, at the Arizona Inn June 10-11, 2002 (Schenectady, NY: L. Davis Press, 2003)


To Prof. Garrison must go much of the credit for the high 1971-1997 productivity of the DDO outstation, the University of Toronto Southern Observatory, or UTSO (at Las Campanas, in the high-and-arid Chilean Andes well east of La Serena; DDO was linked to UTSO under radiotelephony licensing for  20.5665 MHz and 14.6555 MHz, with at the DDO Radio Shack end an "experimental class" callsign, VE9LHM, and a quite imposing tower-with-rotator sporting something like a Yagi). At UTSO, the then just-B.Sc.-level Ian Shelton, doing amateur-grade astrophotography of the Large Magellanic Cloud on a non-commissioned 20-cm-class telescope during a night off from his formal duties on the UTSO 60-cm-class instrument, discovered the 1987 supernova. Had Prof. Garrison's UTSO officer not made his discovery, someone else of course in due time would have - but with a loss of many precious hours, conceivably even of some precious days, in an astrophysical crisis without parallel since Kepler's 1604 supernova, with every minute of data potentially relevant.

To Prof. Garrison must also go the credit for saving what could be saved of UTSO. Although his efforts to secure fresh funding, after NSERC declined to renew a grant, were unsuccessful, he did succeed in having the main  instrument transferred across the Andes, to the Argentinean national observatory at El Leoncito, with also a time-sharing provision for the University of Toronto. (The transfer is chronicled by Prof. Garrison and his Argentinean peer at

Those wishing  to read more deeply in Prof. Garrison's life at Yerkes Observatory, at DDO, at UTSO, and in the University of Toronto Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics might want to proceed next to an article from the above-mentioned Festschrift, by Fr Chris Corbally, under the title "The Anchor Points in Bob Garrison's Astronomical Life", downloadable as


Prof. Garrison will be remembered by many, even outside academia, for his decades of work in the roughly 5100-member Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC).  In a geographically compact country such as New Zealand, or even Germany, it would not be surprising to find a coherent national association fostering public astronomical outreach. New Zealand has, I gather, its own Royal Astronomical Society (with about 180 members in 2010), and Germany its Vereinigung der Strenfreunde (with somewhat more than 4000 members late in 2015). It is, on the other hand, of interest that such an organization has since even before World War I been made to succeed in Canada, where there are two official languages and a geographical spread. (The United States, although outranking Canada in its public budgetary commitments to astronomy on (I think) even a per-capita basis, and additionally blessed with the world's most formidable amateur-astronomy traditions, suffers from its own analogues of Canada's geographical and cultural dispersion. It is perhaps for this reason that the United States has not succeeded in constructing a RASC equivalent.) 

Prof. Garrison became possibly the sole RASC president, ever, to have visited something like 95% or 100% of  the 29 or so  RASC "Local Centres" across Canada - including even those Local Centres which, being in isolated regions at the higher latitudes, must have found it a challenge to recruit members. I know from chats with Prof. Garrison that he took on his self-assigned task not with stoic determination but with relish. His generosity of spirit - shown in those RASC travels, as also in his more austerely astrophysical work on MK classification, and in his devotion to UTSO - will now be recalled by those who were privileged to know him.

[This is the end of the current blog posting.]

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