James “Jim” Kaler, one of the world’s leading experts on stars and a passionate science communicator, died at his home on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022. He was 83 years old.
Kaler was both a prolific research scientist and an enthusiastic teacher, publishing more than 120 academic papers and teaching an estimated 10,000 students during his nearly 40-year career at the University of Illinois.
Following his passing, the University of Illinois issued a release detailing Kaler’s many contributions to stellar physics and public outreach. “Jim was a brilliant astrophysicist and educator,” the release reads, “and he will be missed.”
Scientific star, so-so comedian
Kaler was born Dec. 29, 1938, in Albany, New York, and he graduated from Albany High School in 1956. Just four days after graduation, he married his high school sweetheart, Maxine Grossman.
Following high school, Kaler attended the University of Michigan, where in addition to his studies, he worked as both a research and teaching assistant. After earning an undergraduate degree in 1960, Kaler attended three graduate schools over the course of the next four years.
During his graduate career, Kaler compiled an impressive list of awards and fellowships, including a Fulbright Grant and a NASA Administration Pre-Doctoral Traineeship. After earning his Ph.D. from UCLA in 1964, Kaler briefly worked as an astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory, later joining the faculty at the University of Illinois, where he spent the remainder of his career.
The author of more than 100 research papers (with more than 6,500 citations), 19 books, and dozens of popular-science articles, Kaler was widely recognized throughout the astronomical community. He carried out frequent TV appearances, radio interviews, and public talks, all to spread his fascination with the cosmos to others — whether they were his students or not.
Due to his scientific and educational leadership, the University of Illinois named their Astronomy Department Classroom the James B. Kaler Astronomy Classroom. He was also awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for Excellence in Public Engagement, the American Astronomical Society’s Education Prize, and more. He even had an asteroid named after him: Asteroid 17851 Kaler.
Kaler will be fondly remembered by his children and grandchildren as a “silly fun-loving man who could never complete the punchline of a joke,” according to his obituary.
Countless others, meanwhile, mourn the loss of a kind-hearted, engaging astronomer with a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of stars who cheerfully and selflessly spread his wisdom with others.