In Memoriam: Lloyd Robinson (1929–2020)

To: UC Santa Cruz Community

From: Sandra Faber, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics

Lloyd Robinson
Lloyd Burdette Robinson died peacefully in his sleep on March 12, 2020. He had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2012 but never gave up hope of defeating it. As an astronomer at Lick Observatory, Lloyd Robinson made crucial contributions to creating the University of California Observatories (UCO) as we know it today.

Observatories succeed or fail by their technical prowess. Robinson sparked a renaissance in technical capabilities at Lick Observatory during the 1970s and 80s that enabled UC astronomers to enjoy observing capabilities at Lick that matched, and in some cases surpassed, those of its long-time rival, Palomar Observatory, despite the latter’s larger telescopes and darker skies. Those capabilities in turn laid the foundation, and built the confidence, that was necessary for Lick to take over leadership of the Keck Telescope project and its world-leading instrumentation, which again led the astronomical world through most of the 2000s.

Lloyd Robinson was born in Gravelbourg, Saskatchewan, Canada, on August 28, 1929, and the farm life he enjoyed during his early years was always in his blood. Unfortunately, his parents were badly affected by the Great Depression and soon lost their farm, eventually moving to North Battleford. However, the love of growing fruit and vegetables was instilled in Robinson in his formative years and remained with him for the rest of his life. Another of his loves was the violin, which he learned to play as a young child and enjoyed playing right to the end.

Robinson was a brilliant student, but after high school he couldn’t afford to go to university. He took a position with the Dominion Fruit Company, where he worked in the accounting office, but soon recognized the need to further his education. In 1949, he enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan, where he earned his B.A. degree with great distinction in 1952, followed by his M.A. degree in 1954. He earned his Ph.D. in physics at the University of British Columbia in 1957.

During this time, Robinson married Norma Dyck (in 1952), and their son Barton was born three years later. His daughter, Margo, was born in 1958.

After graduate school, Robinson accepted a position with Atomic Energy of Canada’s Chalk River Nuclear Research Facility in Deep River, Ontario, where he worked closely with researcher Fred Goulding. After Goulding moved to UC’s Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (LBL), he encouraged Robinson to join him there. In 1962, Robinson accepted a position at LBL, and he and his family moved to Walnut Creek.

In 1969, Lick Astronomer Joseph Wampler was working to update the observing facilities at the UC’s Lick Observatory. Wampler felt strongly that the observatory needed a physicist who was also highly skilled in computer design and programming. Wampler’s close connection with LBL enabled the observatory to recruit Robinson, who had matured by then into a gifted instrumental physicist and skilled computer engineer and programmer.

One of Robinson’s first tasks was to team with Wampler to mount two NASA gigawatt ruby lasers on the Shane telescope in order to measure the distance to the moon. The lasers were fired at the newly installed retroreflector array placed there by Apollo 11 astronauts, and the first measured time delay, on August 1, 1969, gave the distance to the moon with unprecedented centimeter accuracy, laying the foundation for continued monitoring of the moon’s orbit which continues to this day using this technique.

Shortly after this success, Robinson and John McNall, who was on sabbatical at Lick from the University of Wisconsin, worked with Wampler to develop a novel scanner that combined image tubes, electronic readout, and computer control to produce an instrument that was unsurpassed in sensitivity and convenience until it was replaced by CCD detectors in the early 1980’s. This scanner, nicknamed the Wampler-Robinson scanner, became a world-recognized state-of-the-art scientific instrument. The 1973 issue of the Guinness Book of World Records gave credit to Margaret Burbidge for seeing the furthest in space using the Lick Observatory's Wampler-Robinson scanner. This record stood for 10 years until it was finally outdone and awarded to astronomers at a new telescope in Australia, the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT), which also used a Wampler-Robinson scanner.

It is hard to overstate the power, novelty, and impact of the Wampler-Robinson scanner when it was introduced. Previously, taking astronomical spectra had relied on photographic plates, which had quantum efficiencies of only about 1% and were also imprecise and hard to calibrate. The Wampler-Robinson scanner was astronomy’s first panoramic photon-counting detector, with 20% photocathode efficiency. Widely used by UC astronomers during the 70’s and 80’s, it contributed to such landmark papers as the Faber-Jackson relation (the first scaling law for galaxies), the discovery of the Great Attractor and large-scale deviations from uniform Hubble expansion, the definitive classification system for the spectra of active galactic nuclei and radio galaxies, the Lick index system for estimating the ages and abundance of old stellar populations, the first census of damped Lyα absorbers in distant galaxy spectra, landmark spectroscopic redshifts for the 3C catalog of radio galaxies, and the first accurate chemical element abundances of globular cluster stars. The scanner was later outfitted with a state-of-the-art polarimeter, data from which led to the “unified model” for accreting black holes in active galactic nuclei and quasars.

Around 1990, CCDs began to eclipse image-dissector scanners on account of their higher quantum efficiency and larger number of pixels, and Robinson led Lick Observatory’s entry into this exciting new field. The cracker-jack team of electronic engineers and programmers he assembled designed and built state-of the art CCD detectors for both Lick and Keck instruments, including HIRES, DEIMOS, and ESI. These detectors are still performing flawlessly some 20 to 30 years later.

A little-known paper in 1995 describes a collaboration between Robinson and William Borucki to test the ultimate precision for differential photometry measurements by front-illuminated CCDs. The paper achieved a precision of one part in 105, which was the key technology that opened up transit photometry on the Kepler satellite and led to the discovery of thousands of extrasolar planets.

In August 1973, Robinson attended the International Astronomical Union conference to present a paper on the Wampler-Robinson scanner. The conference was held in Sydney, Australia, and it was here that he met his soon-to-be wife, Sue. They married in Santa Cruz in 1976 and built a home there in 1978. With three acres surrounding their home, Lloyd’s farming roots soon came to the fore, and the property now boasts numerous fruit trees as well as many other varieties of trees and crops he planted.

Though one realizes in retrospect that Robinson’s leadership at UCO/Lick was profound, at the time it was often barely discernible, disguised as it was by his distinctive, gentle touch. He was that most remarkable of leaders, able to motivate and draw the best from everyone around him without at any time coercing, or even appearing to push. Unflappable, calm, generous, and caring, Robinson was the perfect mentor. His impeccable standards of professional and personal conduct were shining examples to all around him.

Of all his joys, the greatest was his family, whom he loved dearly. He is survived by his beloved wife, Susie (Edworthy-Gerdes), son Barton Robinson, daughter Margo Clayson (Ron), step-daughter Karen Gerdes (Steven Wykamp), and step-son David Gerdes. He is also survived by seven grandchildren: Aaron Clayson (Crystal), Daniel Clayson (Heather), Katrina Clayson, Joseph Clayson, Blake Singer-Robinson, Gabrielle Singer-Robinson and Nicole Singer-Robinson, as well as two step-grandsons Carl Yarroll and Aaron Wykamp. He is also survived by four great-grandchildren: Dante Clayson, Ashlyn Clayson, Brynlee Clayson and Miriam Clayson as well as his brother Melvin Robinson (Lorna), sister Grace Cain (John), four nephews, and a niece.

A memorial service will be held at a later date at Peace United Church of Christ, 900 High Street, Santa Cruz. In lieu of flowers, donations to Peace United Church of Christ would be greatly appreciated.