Finding Aid to the Papers of Donald C. Backer, 1943-2010
Short description of collection: This collection documents the professional work of Donald C. Backer, professor and member of the Radio Astronomy Lab at the University of California, Berkeley. Records document his research on pulsars, Sagittarius A*, interstellar medium and Very Long Baseline Interferometry and his administrative work as Executive Officer of the VLBI Network.
Biography: 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 the 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 member of the 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 millisecond pulsar), imaging radio-wave emission from the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, imaging Sagittarius A*, 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. He was a founding member of the Center for Astronomical Signal Processing and Engineering Research (CASPER), and initiated an array of antennas called Precision Array to Probe the Epoch of Reionization (PAPER), the predecessor to the Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array (HERA). 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 died unexpectedly in July 2010.
[Biographical note adapted from an article by James M. Moran in Physics Today, July 2011, with permission from AIP.]
Publication rights: The Backer family retains copyright to all material in the collection. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Archivist who will coordinate permission with the family.
Preferred citation: National Radio Astronomy Observatory/Associated Universities, Inc. Archives, Papers of Donald C. Backer, (series/unit/subunit/box #). After the initial citation, abbreviations may be used: NRAO/AUI Archives, Backer Papers, (series/unit/subunit/box #).
Processing notes: Arrangement, description, indexing, foldering and boxing of this material was completed in May 2022 by Heather Cole. During the processing, fasteners were removed and materials were removed from binders of various types. Backer's folder titles were retained, where possible.
Correspondence Series: This series is comprised of correspondence to and from Backer and a variety of organizations and individuals. Material is organized by correspondent and date. Dates: 1963-2007. Size: 1.5 linear feet. Click here for a listing of folders.
Notes & Papers Series: This series is comprised of notes, correspondence, memos and other material collected by Backer. It includes awards received, details on trips to France and Japan, and several folders of material relating to the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC) at Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Dates: 1970-2004. Size: 0.5 linear feet. Click here for a listing of folders.
Lectures Series: This series is comprised of notes and viewgraphs for a variety of lectures relating to Backer's research. Much of the material is undated. Dates: 1972-2005. Size: 1.5 linear feet. Click here for a listing of folders.
Notebooks Series: This series is comprised of five notebooks containing research notes, to do lists and phone logs. Dates: 1970-2002. Size: 0.5 linear feet. Click here for a listing of folders.
Councils & Committees Series: This series is comprised of agenda, minutes, notes and correspondence for a variety of NRAO, Haystack, NAIC and other visiting, advisory and program review committees on which Backer served. CORF material is contained in a separate unit (below). Dates: 1988-2002. Size: 2.5 linear feet. Click here for a listing of folders.
Conference Proceedings Series: This series is comprised of material from conferences attended by Backer and includes agenda, programs, viewgraphs, notes and related correspondence. Some folders include material relating to talks given by Backer at those conferences. Dated: 1973-2006. Size: 2.5 linear feet. Click here for a listing of folders.
Radio Astronomy Research Series: This series is comprised of a variety of material relating to Backer's radio astronomy research. Material for which there was a clear tie to a specific grant or instrument proposal was filed in the Grants Unit or Proposals Unit. The remainder of the material was organized by topic of research: Interstellar Medium, Pulsars, Quasars/AGN, Radio Stars, VLBI and Instrumentation Units. A small bit of remaining material was unable to be categorized and filed in the Miscellany Unit. Where possible, Backer's folder naming was retained.