York’s space experts celebrate two special anniversaries



Above: From left, Stan Shapson, York vice-president research & innovation, joins Ralph W. Nicholls, distinguished research professor emeritus (physics), his wife Doris Nicholls, professor emerita (biology), and Gordon Shepherd, distinguished research professor emeritus (atmospheric science), at the joint celebration

York’s space researchers held a double celebration Friday as they marked the 80th birthday of Ralph Nicholls, distinguished research professor emeritus (physics), and York’s Centre for Research on Earth & Space Science, which he founded 40 years ago.

An all-star cast of friends and well wishers, including David Kendall, the Canadian Space Agency’s director general, space science, assembled on the third floor of the Lumbers Building to mark the occasion and share stories about York’s early days and the beginning of the physics program in 1965.

Ralph Nicholls with giftRight: Nicholls with a presentation book given to him at Friday’s celebration of his 80th birthday

In his remarks, Kendall recognized CRESS’s current director Gordon Shepherd, who was recruited to York by Nicholls, and noted that Shepherd’s York-led WINDII project, one of the CSA’s most successful ever, was a watershed project for the space science program and showed the world that Canada could mount a “multi-tens of millions of dollars project and fly it with the Americans.” Kendall also credited Nicholls with founding an experimental space program that was “unique in Canada” and said, “we [CSA] would not be where we are today, which is a world-leading space science program, if it was not for the leadership that Ralph has shown.”

Shepherd, who is also distinguished research professor emeritus in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, acted as master of ceremonies and led the rounds of stories about Nicholls, who was joined by his wife, Doris Nicholls, professor emerita in York’s Department of Biology.

In thanking all for their kind words, Nicholls said, “It has been a real privilege for Doris and me to have had these super opportunities since 1965 to have been part of the team who were able to build the Faculty of Science & Engineering in particular and York in general.”

Stan Shapson, York vice-president research & innovation, also congratulated Nicholls for his vision, particularly as a teacher and mentor, and remarked that York is the only university in Canada that offers space research programs at both the graduate and undergraduate level.

In leading the round of compliments about Nicholls and his work, Shepherd noted that CRESS was the first research centre at York, and, thanks to Nicholls’ recruitment efforts, quickly became known for the quality of its research and researchers. Today, Shepherd noted, York is one of the leading space research centres in Canada with projects such as the Phoenix mission to Mars, Gravity Probe-B (see also the April 20, 2004 issue of YFile) and a host of weather-related projects such as WINDII (see also the Jan. 5 issue of YFile) and its successor project SWIFT (Stratospheric Wind InterFerometer for Transport), expected to be launched in 2010 on the Canadian Chinook satellite.

“We sort of cornered the market at the CSA at the moment,” said Shepherd.

In addition to those projects, Shepherd mentioned York’s Space Instrumentation Lab, and the Atmospheric Modelling and Data Assimilation Lab which is at the heart of several current projects by York faculty members, supported by the Canada Foundation for Innovation. Shepherd also noted the newer areas of specialization such as geomatics. “Ralph couldn’t have foreseen all this 40 years ago,” Shepherd said, “but his vision of 40 years ago completely encompasses everything that’s going on today and I think that’s what we are really indebted to him for.

“The first thing he wanted was a strong presence on the national and international stage,” Shepherd said, “and that’s certainly now true.” The other part of Nicholls’ vision, Shepherd said, was to have an associated graduate program that would accept people from a wide range of backgrounds and who were interested in doing interdisciplinary work.

John Miller, Chair of York’s Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering, told guests another result of Nicholls’ vision was the recent addition of a space engineering program at York which, he said, “will now give the University an integrated program of space science and space engineering.”

A number of former students, friends and colleagues of Nicholls sent messages of congratulations. Among those present for the occasion was alumnus Bill Morrow (PhD ‘03, BSc ‘75) (see story in the June 16, 2003 issue of YFile) who presented him with a bottle of California vintage wine named “Rocket Science”.

About Ralph W. Nicholls

Ralph NichollsRalph W. Nicholls, distinguished research professor emeritus (physics) at York and director emeritus, Centre for Research in Earth & Space Science (CRESS), is a member of the Order of Canada.

Nicholls’ career at York began in 1965 when he joined the University as professor and founding Chair (1965-1969) of the Physics Department, founding director of the Centre for Research in Experimental (now Earth and) Space Science, (1965-1992), and director of the graduate programs for physics and CRESS.

Prior to that, Nicholls had been senior astrophysics demonstrator, Department of Physics, Imperial College, London (1945-1948), and instructor and later professor, Physics Department, University of Western Ontario (1950-1965). 

In 1982-1983, he was Walter Gordon Research Fellow at York. In 1983, he was made distinguished research professor emeritus of physics. Since 1996 he has been director emeritus of CRESS. He is still very active in undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and in research. His research career has been devoted to many experimental, theoretical and observational aspects of the spectra of small molecules.

Nicholls was made Fellow of the American Physical Society (1976), the Royal Society of Canada, Academy of Science (1978), the Optical Society of America (1978), the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute (1979), and the UK Institute of Physics (1956). He has been a visiting professor of aeronautics and astronautics, Stanford University, and visiting lecturer, NASA Ames Research Center, Mountainview, Calif.

He is, or has been, a member of the TRACER, SPEAM1, MAPS, MAPS on MIR, HiRES and MICROMAPS2 Space Science Teams. He was the recipient (1995) of the NASA Group Achievement Award to the Measurement of Air Pollution from Satellites (MAPS) Experiment Team. He was also the recipient (1997) of a Canadian Space Agency award “in recognition of an outstanding career contributing to the Canadian Space Science Program.”