Life and Career of Jocelyn Tomkin, Astronomer -
Jocelyn Tomkin, Astronomer -
The late Jocelyn Tomkin (Aug 1945 – Apr 2020), a Research
Fellow at The University of Texas, was always fascinated with
astronomy. As a youth he enjoyed stargazing with a small
refracting telescope, not knowing that he would become a
professional astronomer. "I didn't know I actually wanted to
be an astronomer," he said. "I didn't decide that until I was
in my last year of college."
Jocelyn was born in his parents' native England and lived
there until he was six years old. The family then immigrated
to Tasmania, where his father took up sheep farming. After two
years, his parents divorced and he moved with his mother and
younger brother to Ireland, where Jocelyn stayed until he
graduated from college.
Jocelyn was remembered as a most valuable colleague in the
department. He was a stalwart observer and worker at the
McDonald Observatory telescope in West Texas, and again back
in Austin trying to make sense of the observations collected.
(Click on image to enlarge)
While at Trinity College, Dublin,
Ireland, Jocelyn was lucky enough to be in a math
class taught by Mr. Graham, who became his
favorite instructor. Jocelyn remembered him as
being informal, but also very interestingly
instructive. He helped Jocelyn see math in a
whole new way, he said - "I was able to think
about math in more relaxed terms," he remembered,
"rather than thinking that things were carved in
stone like the ten commandments."
When he finished his college degree in physics, Jocelyn
decided that he wanted to do astronomical research. At the
University of Sussex in England he earned a Ph.D. in
astronomy, and then took up a position doing research at the
University of Texas in 1973, which was suggested by his Ph.D.
supervisor Professor Bernard Pagel. For him, the best part
about studying astronomy was the thrilling idea that it really
was possible to discover something completely new.
When at the McDonald telescope they saw the star Groombridge
1830, Jocelyn was especially excited because it had been the
focus of his Ph.D., a dim star 15.9 light years away. It had
been interesting enough that his Ph.D. supervisor had already
renamed his own house in Lewes, UK to `Groombridge’.
Those McDonald observations of Groombridge 1830 led to the
discovery that the star’s atmosphere was deficient in the two
heavier isotopes of magnesium. This deficiency had been
predicted by theoreticians but not previously observed in any
star. It was Jocelyn’s extremely careful and detailed analysis
that uncovered the deficiency and created some excitement.
Recently it is suspected to have a planetary system. The
magnesium discovery was but one in a string of novel results
in which Jocelyn was ultimately involved.
Colleagues have said they enjoyed collaborations with many
astronomers from across the world but declare without
hesitation that Jocelyn was one of the best.
Colleagues were also impressed by how Jocelyn readily adapted
to working with a continuing string of postdoc and graduate
students from the US and across the world who came through the
University of Texas at Austin during these 35 years. Jocelyn
was a true gentleman in and out of astronomy.
He never married nor had a significant other, but dedicated
his spare time to helping others. Two different non-profit
societies in Austin were beneficiaries of his volunteer time,
as well as his teaching of individual under-privileged youths
and adults how to read for many years. When his younger
brother moved to the USA in the early 1990s, he was of
outstanding material assistance in aiding this brother's
housing and immigration status.
(Click on image to enlarge)
Jocelyn used the 1997 Hipparcos satellite data
release to create the most up-to-date list ever of
the historically brightest stars over the last or
next 5 million years [sic] published
by Wikipedia in 1998 at -
although it is understood that improved satellite
telescope imagery since then has modified this
When he was diagnosed with Parkinson's he moved to
North Carolina to be near his brother for his
He published over sixty peer-reviewed papers on original
research results during his career, many of which can be seen
at - "Cite Seer X"
A simple web search using the phrase "Jocelyn Tomkin
astronomer" provides a wealth of material generated during his
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