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2 December 2022

Tribute to Tom Marsh from the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes

Tom has been a pre-eminent contributor to the ongoing research taking place at the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes (ING). He was a prolific user of the William Herschel and Isaac Newton telescopes, starting with IDS, and then, of course, with ISIS. His primary research field was compact binary objects, but since he had such broad interests and expertise across astronomy, his work covered nearly all areas of research conducted at the ING.

His first observing run at the ING was with INT/IDS in October 1985 and for the following 37 years he continued his involvement with the observatory, starting as a young postdoc at the Royal Greenwich Observatory in 1986. He served on the ING Board from October 2001 to October 2004.

ING Board members at the William Herschel Telescope in 2003. Tom Marsh is standing second from the right.

Tom brought many students to the ING. As a professor at the University of Warwick he was an advocate of giving them direct experience of working at observatories and using the telescopes themselves. He regularly brought his post-graduates to the Roque with him. Back at Warwick, he encouraged people to apply for the studentship programme at the ING and several of these students went on to work here.

Through a partnership between Sheffield and Warwick Universities (in a consortium with several other institutions), Tom was a founder and co-creator of the ULTRACAM and HiPERCAM cameras. ULTRACAM was commissioned on the WHT in May 2002, and was mounted many times until September 2015 when it made a permanent move to the NTT in Chile. Tom’s recent Nature paper on the white dwarf binary pulsar AR Sco featured data taken at the WHT using ULTRACAM. This is the first so-called “white dwarf pulsar” where beamed radiation from an accreting white dwarf induces secondary radiation as it sweeps across the companion star. First light of HiPERCAM was at the WHT in late 2017. During that frantic week, Tom was actively working on the software suite for data acquisition and reduction, posting updates in real-time as the rest of the team were pointing the telescope at the sky.

His software development was extensive and comprehensive and he has written tools and utilities that are actively used by several groups around the world. This reflects another aspect of Tom’s generosity, working tirelessly on these systems and sharing them freely with the rest of the astronomy community. Always happy to support and help less-expert users, Tom documented his software and hosted web sites for download and installation. For example, Pamela and Molly are industrial strength spectroscopy reduction tools that are used by many institutions and taught to new spectroscopy observers.

Most important of all, Tom was a wonderful friend and a perfect mentor. Happy to inspire us all with his boundless enthusiasm and curiosity and just as keen to have a laugh or crack a quick joke. His dry, witty observations almost, but not quite, concealed deep intelligence and experience, “If your errors look wrong, they are wrong.” He could not resist a new, quirky light curve. Long nights at the telescope with him were made shorter through conversations about research in astronomy, politics or any other random topic. He inspired generations of new astronomers and that is probably his greatest legacy. The Universe is a poorer place without him and we, at the ING, will miss him deeply.

Our thoughts now are with Tom’s family in the face of their devastating loss.

Messages of condolences for Tom are being submitted at the following web site:

– Richard Ashley, Marc Balcells, Chris Benn, Ian Skillen (on behalf of the ING)

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Last modified: 02 December 2022