George C. Pimentel
1922 - 1989

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George Lives On: 
an example of his continuing influence



It was Berkeley in the Sixties - tear gas on the plaza, love-ins in the parks, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles. But in a building high above the University of California campus, another kind of excitement prevailed: a state-of-the-art scientific instrument was being prepared for a voyage to Mars. Space frenzy was of course sweeping the nation and the world: man's landing on the moon in July of 1969 eclipsed for many the flyby of Mars just weeks later by Mariner 6 and 7, twin spacecraft with payloads of scientific instruments. But for the team that George Pimentel had put together to build an Infrared Spectrometer ("IRS") at UC Berkeley's Space Sciences Lab, that was the mission that defined the era.

"It was the most important time in my life..." 
"We were on the cutting edge and we knew it..."
"I remember it as if it were yesterday..."

Almost three decades later, most of the team assembled for a reunion. The memories were still fresh, but the science was stale, right? Wrong!

"It's still the best data set in several key areas..."
"A more sensitive instrument has not been flown in all the years between..."
"Thanks to the Mariner 6/7 results, current data sets are more significant..."

IRS was unique in that it used an active cooling system in order to measure with the highest possible sensitivity. A space borne active cooling system was very difficult to construct, and risky to fly. The IRS team, believing passionately in achieving the most scientifically valuable data set, accepted the risk, and succeeded. The high sensitivity of IRS is primarily what makes the data set unique and keeps it current. 

It is thanks to a quietly persistent and visionary graduate student that the IRS data's effect has quite recently been maximized. In 1996, Laurel Kirkland, a geophysics student working at Rice University and Houston's Lunar and Planetary Institute, recognized that "the IRS data still stand as the best spectral resolution data ever taken of Mars, from earth or space." But it had never been properly archived, and was not usefully accessible to the scientific community. Laurel contacted Kenneth Herr, the brilliant graduate student who designed the instrument and became co-principal investigator with George Pimentel.  Ken directed her to UC Berkeley's College of Chemistry, and to me. Together we located, in the University's deep storage, a prototype of the instrument and the original data tapes. The data set was written in now-obsolete computer language, but with modern technology and the help of key team members Don Stone and Paul Forney, Laurel was able to get the data not only read, but accurately calibrated, thereby greatly enhancing its value.

Through dogged detective work she managed to contact almost all the original team members, and an older but still colorful crowd congregated for the above-mentioned joyful reunion in December 1997. And by digging into the Pimentel archives at UC's Bancroft Library, Laurel brought to light scientific papers by members of the team and subsequent researchers that had languished uncompleted and unpublished. Resurrected with the new data, these added to the literature, as did many other papers published by Laurel and colleagues in her own field. Ken Herr's research at Aerospace was reinvigorated by all the enthusiasm and it's rumored that his impending retirement was delayed! 

The IRS data became a major part of Laurel's thesis** on "Infrared Spectroscopy of Mars." While completing it, she was already organizing meetings and giving presentations on aspects of the recently reenergized research on the science of Mars. She continues to do so, and the IRS data is now widely acknowledged as an invaluable and integral part of the body of knowledge in this burgeoning field. (click here for photo)  And Laurel is seeing to it that the IRS data, along with other valuable data now arriving thick and fast from current missions, is properly archived for scientific posterity. 

Although Laurel never met George, she came to feel close to him personally and professionally. She once commented:

What George did still affects "second generation" students. By that I mean students who never met or knew him. So for example, it isn't just that George taught Ken, but that Ken has passed along things to me that George taught him. Surely that's a sign of an unusually good teacher. 
Also, for the people involved in IRS, probably the most lasting part was what they learned. You've seen how successful most members of the group have been. Tom Foster told me that he still applies lessons about how to work that he learned then, and that's probably true for many of the people involved. That's a kind of education that can't come from a textbook, but ultimately proved at least as important as the technical end, if not more so.

Thus George lives on, in outer space, and in human spirits.

Jeanne Pimentel
Berkeley, California
May 2003

* George Pimentel's working title for his early research on the red planet.

** Includes a comprehensive account of the scientific aspects of IRS, and, as an appendix, the remarkable story of how an instrument built by a team of independent-minded individuals at a California university succeeded on a mainstream NASA mission.

Workshop on Spectroscopy of the Martian Surfaces:  What Next?  held at Lunar & Planetary Institute, Houston, TX, June 1999. Three instruments that flew to Mars with their P.I.s:  Ken Herr, IRS, 1969; Rudy Hanel, IRIS, 1971;  Phil Christensen, TES, 1997

In "George C. Pimentel (1922-1989): A Retrospective Personal and Pictorial Tribute a Decade after his Death" George B. Kauffman, The Chemical Educator, Vol. 4 No. 6, 1999, Springer-Verlag New York.

*** Update on Mariner Activities ***

The Mariner team has had several reunions over the years, the last in 2009. On August 2, 2009, some of the team who live in the San Francisco Bay Area met at the home of Paul Forney to celebrate close to the actual flyby dates forty years ago. A bigger reunion took place on October 25 of that same year at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Lab, where the IRS was assembled. 

A summary of the 40th reunion by Les Hughes is included on the website for the Mariner group started by Jim Holsworth.

DVD copies of the short movies “Martian Investigators” and “A Space Oddity” are available: contact (510) 843-3171.

The Mariner 6/7 mission was featured on August 29 & 30, 2010, at a symposium marking the fiftieth anniversary of Space Sciences Lab. A prototype of the IRS was on display there, and there are plans to display it permanently in Pimentel Hall. 

The Smithsonian Institution has indicared interest in displaying the space-ready backup instrument at the Air and Space Museum—when funds allow.

Jeanne Pimentel
March 2010

Copyright © 2003 - 2018 Jeanne Pimentel

Welcome | Commencement Address | Selected Biographical Summaries
Awards Named for George C. Pimentel | Students and Research Collaborators
Continuing Influence: Mars Research  | Matrix Isolation
Pimentel Archive at UC Berkeley
  Site Map | Contact Us