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JoelFest 2018 celebrates Professor Weisberg’s outstanding career in physics

< 35 years of teaching, mentoring and researching at Carleton, renowned Physics and Astronomy Professor Joel Weisberg is retiring in June 2019. Over the weekend of October 27, Weisberg’s current and former students, colleagues, mentors and friends gathered at Carleton to celebrate his extraordinary career as a scientist, mentor and friend.

Dubbed “JoelFest 2018,” Weisberg’s celebration included speeches from colleagues and mentors as well as a series of two alumni panel discussions entitled “Joel’s Legacy.” Many travelled from across the country to join in on this celebration, while some even flew in from abroad. Speakers praised Weisberg’s immense academic contributions to science and showed admiration for his warmth and kindness—a comment on his outstanding character.

The festivities were held in conjunction with the Carleton’s “Celebration of Excellence in Science Symposium,” because, according to physics and astronomy administrative assistant Trenne Fields, “you can’t celebrate [Weisberg] without talking about his amazing scientific career.”

Over 100 alumni returned to partake in the celebration, many of whom participated in all events. Eight alumni panelists reflected on their time at Carleton with Weisberg—the research they did together, his positive mentoring, and how he inspired and motivated them.

Weisberg’s contribution to science was praised in speeches given by two prominent scientists over the weekend: Nobel Laureate Dr. Joseph Taylor, Jr., a mentor, friend and colleague of Weisberg as well as Dr. Nelson Christensen, longtime Carleton faculty member and now senior researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research.


Both scientists recognized and praised Weisberg’s unique approach and immense contributions to pulsar and gravitation research. A trailblazer in his field, Weisberg and his then-advisor Taylor laid the foundation for over 40 years of research and work that led to the detection of gravitational waves and opened up an entire new field of research for both physics and astronomy. In addition to pulsars and gravitation, Weisberg’s expertise includes radio astronomy and interstellar medium. He has published over 65 articles in refereed scientific journals.

Weisberg first came to Carleton in the fall of 1984, after beginning his career at the University of Massachusetts and Princeton University. Since then, he has not looked back. An inspiration for students and colleagues alike, Weisberg has worked with and influenced numerous Carls over the years. “I’ve been so fortunate to work with so many great people,” he said. “It’s just been a real joy for me.”

The respect between Weisberg and his students is mutual. Senior physics major Alice Curtin ’19 has been doing research with Weisberg in her four years at Carleton. Without Weisberg, she said, her Carleton experience would have been completely different. “Not only has he been my mentor these last four years, he has come to be a very good friend of mine,” she said.

When asked about his impact on his students, Weisberg responded in a humble manner. “To be honest,” he said, “I don’t know that I had an impact on them.” Despite this, many alumni continue to return to praise Weisberg’s passion for science and teaching.

Dr. Martha Anderson ’87 is one of the alumni who returned to speak over the weekend. One of Weisberg’s first astronomy students, she reflected on the unique qualities that made Weisberg a truly special professor. “His classes were fantastic,” she said. “[Weisberg] could convey complicated information in an understandable way, and with a wry sense of humor.”

Anderson, now a scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, credits Weisberg’s love and passion for his job as the inspiration for her own career. “Professor Joel Weisberg is the reason that I am a scientist today,” she said. “Watching him at the telescope, interacting with students and colleagues, it was clear that he really loved his job,” she explained, “and that’s when I realized this is what I wanted to do to.”

For Weisberg, the festivities evoked pleasant memories. “It’s been gratifying and meaningful to me that people are coming back,” he said. “I’ve stayed good friends with many of them, and I’m just delighted to be able to be close with a group of wonderful people.”

One alumnus, in particular, came back and never left. Ryan Terrien ’09, one of Weisberg’s mentees, is now an assistant professor at Carleton. “[Weisberg] inspired and guided me in pursuing astronomy research,” he said, “and I’m quite lucky to continue learning from him now.”

In addition to mentoring his students, Weisberg has contributed to the growth of Carleton’s department of physics and astronomy in unparalleled ways. Having served as department chair in multiple stints over the years, he is currently the Herman and Gertrude Mosier Stark Professor of Physics and Astronomy and the Natural Sciences. In spite of his impressive resume, his impact on the program is much greater than what is written down.

Weisberg’s colleague, Professor and Chair of Department Arjendu Pattanayak said, “Joining the Department with Joel meant that I always had a wonderful role model of a professor who was passionate, hardworking, and utterly dedicated to his science.” Pattanayak expressed admiration for Weisberg’s deep engagement in the education of his students and his role as a warm and generous mentor and colleague.

“Above all,” Pattanayak added, “Joel cared about being a good human being. He will be sorely missed.”

In his retirement, Weisberg plans to engage in more political activism and read the novels he has been too busy for. “I’m going to do a little astronomy too,” he joked, “as long as it doesn’t take over my life again.”

In his farewell speech, the final event of the celebration, Weisberg expressed appreciation for all that Carleton has given him. Addressing the students, staff and faculty, he said, “Thanks for being who you are—it’s been a great joy to work with you because of the kind of people you are.”

Perhaps Anderson’s depiction of Weisberg captures the essence of his character and magnitude of his impact at Carleton. “[He] has touched so many lives at Carleton, and has taught us by example that it’s better to be a good person than to reap recognition for oneself,” she said.

She continued, “For my 12-year old son, I’m hoping he finds a [Weisberg] of his own along the way—someone who will help him discover the path he is meant to follow and will give him some gentle encouragement to get started down that path.”

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