Michael Feast: Astronomer of long vision and passion

His lifetime work added deeply to our understanding of our own galaxy

07 April 2019 - 00:00 By CHRIS BARRON

Michael Feast, who has died in Cape Town at the age of 92, was an internationally recognised astronomer whose work added significantly to the world's understanding of our own and neighbouring galaxies.
It also led to the recognition of SA as a major player in world astronomy.
He was a National Research Foundation A1-rated scientist and in 2015 received the NRF Lifetime Achievement award.
During more than 15 years as the director of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in Cape Town he turned it into one of the world's leading astronomical institutions.
His work on the brightest stars in neighbouring galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds, was a crucial step in our understanding of stellar evolution, and his most important contribution to knowledge of the stars. Fifty years later his paper on the subject had been cited more than 440 times in leading scientific journals - his most cited paper - and is still cited today.
He published more than 300 refereed papers, the first in 1948 and the latest at the beginning of this year.
Feast was born in Kent, England, on December 29 1926 and was evacuated to live with host families in Wales during World War 2.
His earliest published work was not in astronomy but laboratory spectroscopy, in which he did his PhD at the Imperial College of Science and Technology (London University) in 1949 before moving to Canada where he did pioneering work in this field.
He changed fields when he came to SA in 1952 after being offered a job in astronomy by the Radcliffe Observatory in Pretoria.
He was very interested in what was happening in radio astronomy. Though his own speciality was in optical astronomy, he understood early on that optical and radio observations could be put together. That is very important at the moment in the context of building the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project in SA.
All astronomers now think in terms of multi-wavelength observations. They certainly didn't while Feast was working in Pretoria, where he combined radio observations made in Australia with optical observations made with what was then the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere, the 1.9m "Radcliffe" telescope.
This was moved to Sutherland in the Northern Cape when light pollution from the expanding city made optical astronomy increasingly difficult. He oversaw the move of the telescope and made sure it was set up properly, which given its size was a major challenge.
In 1976 he became the director of the SAAO, which had been formed as a joint venture between the UK and SA four years earlier with SA as very much the junior partner. This changed under his leadership.
As he approached retirement he was aware of the need for a much larger optical telescope to keep South African research competitive into the 21st century. He laid the groundwork for the building of the Southern African Large Telescope, the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere, completed after he retired.
He was always very much a hands-on scientist who liked to do the observing, and went on observing long after he formally retired in 1992 and became an honorary professor at the University of Cape Town.
From 1997 to 2015 he combined data from the Hipparcos satellite with observations from the Hubble space telescope and from various SAAO telescopes at Sutherland to provide better insights into the structure of our galaxy and a new calibration of the extragalactic distance scale.
In 2014 he led a team of South African astronomers which discovered the first known stars in the flared disc of our Milky Way galaxy, situated on the far side of the galaxy 80,000 light years from Earth. The discovery allows astronomers to test theoretical ideas about how galaxies like the Milky Way were formed.
Apart from his technical expertise, the outstanding quality Feast brought to his work was a voracious enthusiasm. He was impatient when colleagues got together at tea time and wanted to talk about anything other than astronomy. For this reason he enjoyed talking to young people with new ideas. He felt passionately about transformation and took South African nationality in 1992 in order, he said, to be part of transformation.
While director of the SAAO during the apartheid era he would have black students in for the holidays to learn about astronomy even though the laws of the country made it hard if not impossible for them to do astronomy degrees.
He was always very keen to encourage anyone who had a brain and wanted to think, to think about astronomy.
When not talking about astronomy, he talked about and read books on philosophy. He was interested in religion without being obviously religious. He believed there was more to the universe than science could describe, things that science could not investigate. He didn't discount the possibility of some all-pervading good not accessible to science.
His work won many prestigious awards but he was always very quiet, modest and self-effacing, not somebody who pushed himself forward. He had strong views about fairness and integrity in science, which, unlike many, he actually practised.
This made him an excellent editor. He was the first person from outside the UK to be invited to be the editor of the country's main astronomy journal, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, which he edited from 1993 to 2018.
Feast is survived by his wife, Connie, and three children.

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day, Financial Mail or Rand Daily Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.