True to His Observations

By Yule, Lauray | The World and I, March 1997 | Go to article overview

True to His Observations


Yule, Lauray, The World and I


Devoted to gathering accurate astronomical data since the eighth grade, William Tifft has confounded orthodox astronomy with his discovery of anomalies and patterns that support a cosmology based on three-dimensional time.

Paying attention to details and observational anomalies that others overlook, William Tifft, professor of astronomy at Steward Observatory, the University of Arizona, has established a reputation as one who fearlessly and stubbornly treads the road less traveled. At 65, he reflects on theories he put forth regarding cosmology that were often challenged--and sometimes ridiculed--by his colleagues.

Tifft has persevered for nearly three decades with controversial studies of relationships between the distribution of matter in the universe, the redshift (the apparent recession that characterizes the "expanding" universe), and recently, the nature of time. His theories regarding quantized cosmological redshifts of galaxies are starting to be accepted, albeit grudgingly. With colleagues at the University of Arizona and Pima Community College in Tucson, Tifft is continuing work to determine relationships between matter, space, and time.

Born a scientist

"I knew I was going to be a scientist by the time I entered fourth grade," says Tifft. "By the eighth grade, I knew it would be astronomy."

Growing up in the small town of Seymour, Connecticut, Tifft was an active amateur astronomer. With help from his father, a mechanical engineer, he built small telescopes. Through a local amateur, Tifft was put in touch with popular astronomy publications and introduced to Dirk Brouwer, director of Yale Observatory.

His career was enhanced by his family's move to Frederick, Maryland, when he was 15. Frederick is home to Hood College, a prestigious women's school where the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) held its 1947 meeting. The AAVSO is devoted to keeping records of the changes in brightness of variable stars, a task to which amateur astronomers can make valuable contributions.

Tifft plunged wholeheartedly into the association's work. Using a small reflecting telescope, he showed his patience and tenacity as an observer. "I did a thousand or so variable star observations for the AAVSO," says Tifft of his experiences during high school.

"The transfer to a Maryland high school was a fortunate move; I came into contact with one teacher who was most influential in my early life," he explains. "Herman Hauver, my general science teacher, recognized my knowledge and interest in science." Though Tifft ultimately returned to Seymour to complete high school (he was valedictorian in his class of 69 students), Hauver had introduced him to the Westinghouse Science Talent Program. Tifft's project, an analysis of data in an atlas of absorption line spectra of stars, earned him recognition as one of the top 10 Westinghouse scholars in 1950.

Tifft remembers those days fondly: "It was through Westinghouse and my AAVSO contacts that I met Harlow Shapley, director of the Harvard Observatory, and John Smiley, who was director of the observatory at Brown University in Rhode Island."

"When I applied to Harvard, my three references were Harlow Shapley, Dirk Brouwer, and John Smiley, three observatory directors," Tifft smiles. "I had no problem to getting into Harvard."

"The thing I liked about Harvard is that you could be what you wanted to be. You weren't forced into any particular mold. There were broad requirements, but you could be one-track if that's what you were made out to be. I was definitely one-track," he says with conviction.

There was no doubt about that one track for William Tifft: astronomy all the way.

"I originally thought I was interested in theory, but I quickly learned that I wasn't that oriented toward mathematical physics. But I definitely was interested in data," explains Tifft. …

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