|Backer was born in 1943, received his B.S. in engineering physics from Cornell in 1966, his M.Sc. in radio astronomy from University of Manchester in 1968, and his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1971. His doctoral dissertation, Radio Intensity Fluctuations in Pulsars, discussed pulse-to-pulse variation and his discovery of nulling pulsars.
Following post-doctoral work at National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and at Goddard Space Flight Center, Backer joined the Radio Astronomy Laboratory (RAL) at University of California, Berkeley, in 1975. He was both a professor in the Astronomy Department and a researcher at RAL, serving twice as Astronomy Department Chair and as Radio Astronomy Laboratory Director from 2008 until his death.
His research interests included pulsars (he and his collaborators discovered the first milli-second pulsar), imaging radio-wave emission from the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, imaging Sagittarius A* at millimeter wavelengths, exploring ionization of hydrogen in the early Universe, and detecting gravitational signatures of merging supermassive black holes using pulsars as accurate clocks.
An instrumentalist as well as an astronomer, Backer was a pioneer in Very Long Baseline Interferometry, developed digital systems for pulsar detection and measurement, was deeply involved in RAL's Allen Telescope Array and the Combined Array for Millimeter Astronomy, was a founding member of the Center for Astronomical Signal Processing and Engineering Research (CASPER), and, most recently, initiated an array of antennas called Precision Array to Probe the Epoch of Reionization (PAPER).
Backer was a member of the International Astronomical Union, the American Astronomical Society, and the International Scientific Radio Union (URSI). He served on many national and international committees, including terms on NRAO's User's, Visiting, and Program Advisory Committees, on URSI's Commission J, on the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council Committee on Radio Frequencies and Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics, and on the National Science Foundation's Senior Review Panel. In recognition of his contributions to astronomy, he was chosen for the 2003 Jansky Lectureship at NRAO.
Backer's professional papers related to his personal research and his activities in the astronomical community were donated by his family to the NRAO Archives, and the unprocessed collection was received in March 2011. A preliminary inventory of the collection has been completed; arrangement, description, indexing, foldering and boxing of the papers is in process. For more detailed information about these materials and their availability, contact the NRAO Archivist.