Obituary: Eugene Shoemaker

Before the lecturer had so much as uttered a word, a slide went up portraying a spectacular group of assorted dinosaurs, writes Tam Dalyell. The scene was the George Street lecture hall of the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 21 February. The distinguished audience derived mainly from Edinburgh's three universities, and the British Geological Survey. After a pause, Eugene Shoemaker said with a twinkle, "Comets and astronauts - they are the reason why we are here, and our dinosaur friends are not!"

For the next couple of hours Shoemaker riveted academic, scientific and not easily impressed Scotland. We learnt that there are a million objects in the universe like the one that flattened vast stretches of the Siberian forest: that it was a damn close run thing that Halley's Comet did not hit the Earth 1,000 odd years ago; that there was a near miss in 1770 by probably a matter of a mere 4.5m kilometres, astronomically a short distance. Chances of a 10mm-long comet hitting the Earth were one every 105,000 years, of a 20km-long comet one every 475,000 thousand years, of a 150km comet hitting the Earth one every 100 million years.

Whatever these figures, Shoemaker has been responsible for the resurgence of interest about the possible risk to Earth from Doomsday astronauts and wayward comets.

Over dinner in the Prestonfield House Hotel Shoemaker regaled Peter Cook, the Director of the Geological Survey, Geoffrey Bolton, Professor of Geology and DNA Science at Edinburgh University, and our wives with his dreams of being an astronaut himself, sadly unfulfilled by a medical condition.

Cook had first met Shoemaker in 1965 in Flagstaff, Arizona, the home of astrogeology. "I was deeply impressed at that time," says Cook, "by the quality of his science and his dedication, enthusiasm and charisma. These same personal qualities were critical in persuading the Nasa to make geology a major part of all its lunar and planetary programmes."

Eugene Shoemaker deserves to be remembered for far more than being immortalised by giving his name to the spectacular crash into Jupiter of Shoemaker-Levy.

Above all that night in Edinburgh proved that he was a magical stimulator of scientifically well- founded ideas.

Eugene Merle Shoemaker, geologist: born Los Angeles 28 April 1928; geologist, US Geological Survey 1948-93, Chief, Branch of Astrogeology 1961-66, Chief Scientist, Center of Astrogeology 1966-68; Acting Director, Nasa Manned Space Sciences Division 1963; Research Associate, California Institute of Technology 1964-68, Professor of Geology 1969-85; Principal Investigator, Geological field investigations in Apollo lunar landings 1965-70; married 1951 Carolyn Spellmann (one son, two daughters); died near Alice Springs, Australia 18 July 1997.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin