(continued...)

In a variety of ways, Kelsall himself has become a key player of the chain of knowledge, at least when it comes to matters of science. After receiving his M.S. in physics at George Washington University, he got his first job in 1959 at the National Bureau of Standards, where he worked to understand the structure and characteristics of rare-Earth compounds. Though he enjoyed his time in the ceramics section, he found himself growing distant from where he wanted to be, which was cosmology and atomic physics. He was soon offered a job with the atomics physics section and took it working for Dr. Peter Bender to create a Rubidium magnetometer. He built a prototype on a large eight-foot piece of plywood. “Some years later, I met Mr. Packard (of Hewlett Packard, or better known as “HP”) at a meeting, and he handed me a gray box the size of a pack of cigarettes,” he said. “I looked puzzled, so he said, ‘there’s your eight-foot piece of plywood now.’”

In the late 1950s, the race with the Russians was becoming more intense and the face (and size) of science was changing, but Kelsall was along for the ride. It was at that time that he worked for the Vanguard program, the first U.S. scientific satellite, where he encountered a new electric calculator, “which could take square roots!” Even though technologies were rapidly advancing, as a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, he worked and studied at NASA and came to know his and its limits. “With the advent of ever-increasing more powerful computers, it was possible to work on the nature of the many-body problem: how do a collection of stars come to form a cluster or a galaxy? I worked with Dr. Davis on this problem for two years, but in the end, the solution evaded us, as we could not integrate the equations over long periods of time (many tens to hundreds of millions of years) and continue to obey the conservation law of physics; perhaps, using Stumpff’s technique I will now find a way to solve this problem with high accuracy. But Prof. Gamon’s words echo – ‘a scientist should define the intersting problems, work on them as best he can – but if he can’t solve them, he should go out and find an interesting colleague who is a mathematician and collaborate.’”


A view of the cedar home that Kelsall recently built.

Kelsall’s work grew increasingly more interesting. He worked on the Hubble Space Telescope and, in the mid-1970s, he was chosen to be a member of the Infrared Astrophysics Section at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. According to Kelsall, the eight-year effort headed by Dr. Michael Hauser to create a balloon-borne infrared observatory culminated in “results that were creditable and useful in delineating the nature of the cold dust in the Milky Way.” He was then offered the chance to work on the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), “the first satellite which would carry instruments with the expressed purpose to measure cosmologically important parameters of our universe- which are the observables of the Big Bang,” he said. “This was scientific catnip at its best, and I was back to where I started, when I went to GWU to study under Prof Gamow, re-satisfying a desire to work on a fundamental set of a cosmological problem. Though I knew these space efforts were difficult, I didn’t fully realize that it would take three times longer to do than the building of the pyramids!”

Although he retired in 1998, Kelsall continues to work on the data collected with the COBE, in the hopes of unlocking more secrets about the workings of the physical world he has come to know in so many ways. “There are problems you can solve and problems that are interesting,” he said. It’s clear, through his dedication to the field, that Kelsall lacks no need of courage when it comes to the latter.

Throughout the past 50 years of research and hard work, Kelsall’s wife, Ann, has been at his side all along. The two were married two days before his graduation at Muhlenberg (she was a student at nearby Cedar Crest College) and are living almost full-time in the 3,300-square-foot cedar home he recently finished. “I felt easy committing a lifetime to the woman I was in love with,” he said. “It is fortuitous that I will receive the Alumni Achievement award on our 50th anniversary.” The two will travel to Muhlenberg in June so that Kelsall can receive his award from a school he now labels as “monster-sized” in comparison to the Muhlenberg of 1955, where he graduated from in a class of 121.

Fifty years have certainly provided Kelsall with ample opportunities to prove himself on the scientific scene, and he continues to look for other challenges. But he claims that he is humbled in comparison to his colleagues. “I did well in school, and I thought that I was pretty good,” he said. “And then in my professional life I met and worked with these people who were welcoming as colleagues, and it just amazed me as to what they could do.” He feels he stands, as the saying goes, “on the shoulders” of and must recognize the impact of the mentors/teachers/colleagues/bosses that directly aided him in receiving this award: George Gamow, James Albers, Peter Bender, Lewis Branscomb, Robert Jastrow, Bengt Stromgren, Stefan Temesvary, Chushiro Hayashi, Nancy Roman, James Westphal, James Gunn, Michael Hauser and John Mather, as well as many other fine colleagues.

“When I compare myself to them, I’m humbled,” he said, words that we can easily imagine saying about Kelsall himself.

In one of his writings, Kelsall tries, in the last line, to capture the continuum nature of the evolutionary process – “I am me, I am you, I am my father and my father’s father…”

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