Date: October 16, 2011

Title: An Account of Truman Kohman’s Life and Love of Astronomy, 1916-2010

Podcaster: Diane Turnshek

Organization: Carnegie Mellon University


Description:Truman Kohman, an astronomer from Pittsburgh (CMU) who died in 2010.

Bio:Diane Turnshek teaches astronomy at CMU, Pitt and St. Vincent, and coordinates the physics outreach at CMU. St. Vincent’s planetarium boasts a state-of-the-art Spitz SciDome projector. Diane worked as a planetarium operator at the Carnegie Science Center’s Buhl Planetarium, assisting in the production of shows. In her astronomy outreach efforts, she has visited to schools, libraries, camps, Scouts and Congress. She hosts a monthly public lecture series at Allegheny Observatory. She has consulted with many who wished to keep their science accurate, from authors to opera companies. She is a science fiction author and editor, whose short fiction has been published in Analog Magazine and elsewhere.

Sponsors:This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” has been sponsored by the Department of Physics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA is proud to sponsor 365 Days of Astronomy and its efforts to bring the world together in appreciation of our sky.

This podcast has also been sponsored by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, a recognized leader in astronomy education. Get Go StarGaze, the iPhone app developed by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific for the NASA Night Sky Network. Find an astronomy event or a club in your area with Go StarGaze or at the Night Sky Network website.


This is Diane Turnshek and welcome to 365 Days of Astronomy.

The American Astronomical Society collects obituaries now because essential information is being lost. John Lankford writes of the decline of obituaries, “in the years following World War II, the immediate past became a casualty of progress.” He blames the lack of foresight of the journals, but appreciates the difficult situation. If the hefty page charges are not paid by someone, the journals would have to subsidize the obituaries by charging everyone more, but if the journals charged for obituaries, well then the obituaries could be considered paid advertisements. The way this dilemma was dealt with? Many journals just stopped publishing obituaries! Lankford’s study, “A Crisis in Documentation, the Decline of the Obituary as a Source for the History of Modern Astronomy,” is written up in the Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society. In 1990, the Historical Astronomy Division of the AAS was asked to publish an obituary for each deceased member of the AAS and longer memoirs for selected scientists. It’s important to establish a record for later work by historians. The list of required documents includes a CV, a bibliography, birth and death certificates, parent’s names and occupations, siblings, spouses, children, avocational pursuits and pictures. And so it came to be that Jay Pasachoff asked me to write up a biographical memoir for an astronomer from Pittsburgh, Truman Kohman.

Truman Paul Kohman was born March 8, 1916 in Champaign, Illinois. His dad, Edward F. Kohman, was a food chemist for the Campbell’s Soup Company, and he and Truman’s mother, Margaret O. Kohman , had two other children, Barbara in 1918 and Victor in 1921. Truman played the trombone, loved jazz, classical music (especially Bach) and Dixieland music. He loved to write poems for all occasions. The age of wonder for him was thirteen when he became fascinated with astronomy. It wasn’t until he was sixteen that he bought his first telescope. When he was older, he chased solar eclipses to South Africa, Indonesia, Hawaii, Brazil and the Caribbean.

His dad convinced him to take up chemistry instead of his love, astronomy. The argument? You can always do astronomy as a hobby. Truman received his Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry from Harvard in 1938 and his Doctorate from the University of Wisconsin. Later, he met his wife Jane Sievers while working on the Manhattan Project in Richland and Hanford, Washington. Also with the Manhattan Project, he worked at Argonne National Labs in Chicago.

Jane and Truman had three children, daughters Leslie and Paulette, and son Steven. Truman taught at Carnegie Tech, then Carnegie Mellon University for over 50 years—in the Chemistry Department from1948 to 1981, but in the Physics Department he taught introductory astronomy from1970 until 1990. (This same class? After him, John Stein taught it, then Richard Griffiths, and then me, starting in 2008.) Truman often referred to himself as an “astro-geo-nuclear chemist.” His official retirement was in 1981, but he was very active for decades beyond that.

Truman was modest in all he did. He hosted star parties and frequently woke his children up at night to look at objects in the sky. He was a lively member of the large amateur astronomy group in Pittsburgh (the AAAP), where he gave talks at meetings, enjoyed and supported the Wagman Observatory, served as an officer until 2007, and donated the first telescope he ever bought (a 70-mm refracting telescope, French-built in the late 1800’s with the inscription “A. BARDOU – PARIS.” It came with a mount, similar to the Clark-Lundin No. 6, only smaller, probably manufactured around 1920). In 1986, students at Carnegie Mellon renamed the school’s observatory (on the roof of Scaife Hall) after him. He proposed the naming of asteroids after prominent Pittsburgh area astronomers Dr. Nicholas Wagman and Leo Scanlon. Main Belt asteroid, Minor Planet 4177-Kohman was named after him in 2000 thanks to Bruce Hapke and William Cassidy.

In 1954, he helped discover Aluminum-26, a nuclide used to analyze meteorites. He actually created the word “nuclide” in 1947, which refers to a species of nucleus, any nuclei with one or more electrons orbiting. He was an expert in radiochemistry (the chemistry of radioactive materials) and sources of gamma ray emission. After the first moon landing, he analyzed moon rocks in a study funded by the NSF.
Like many scientists, he didn’t recognize that his work on the Manhattan Project would directly lead to the development and use of the atomic bomb. And, like many people who worked on the project, he spent the rest of his life advocating peaceful uses of nuclear power. Truman was one of 155 scientists working on the project who signed the Szilárd petition for President Harry S. Truman to consider.

“[W]e, the undersigned, respectfully petition: first, that you exercise your power as Commander-in-Chief, to rule that the United States shall not resort to the use of atomic bombs in this war unless the terms which will be imposed upon Japan have been made public in detail and Japan knowing these terms has refused to surrender; second, that in such an event the question whether or not to use atomic bombs be decided by you in the light of the considerations presented in this petition as well as all the other moral responsibilities which are involved.”

Truman received an award from the World Federalists Association of Pittsburgh and was politically connected late in his life—frequently writing letters to the editor and to politicians (local, national and world). He was well known as a humanitarian and social justice advocate.
Truman Kohman was first and last an astronomer. He bought his last telescope at age 94 (about a month before his death on April 28, 2010). I hope to put together a worthy tribute to him, a man with boundless energy for educating others about the wonders of astronomy.
Thanks for listening. This is Diane Turnshek, signing off.

End of podcast:

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