Africa pays tribute to the legacy of Prof. Michael Feast

Prof. Michael William Feast was an honorary professor in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Cape Town from 1992, and he was awarded a DSc (honoris causa) by UCT in 1993. He was a former director of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), a founding member of the Academy of Science of South Africa, a member of the International Astronomical Union, an honorary fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and a fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa and the South African Institute of Physics (SAIP).

According to University of Cape Town, Michael made major contributions to the understanding of our own Milky Way galaxy. A pioneer of multi-wavelength techniques, between 1958 and 1965 he made the first comparison of optical data on young stars with radio measurements of the hydrogen gas. These led him to a new determination of the distance to the Galactic Centre and an improved understanding of galactic rotation. Much more recently, from 1997 to 2015, he combined data from the Hipparcos satellite with observations from the Hubble Space Telescope and from various SAAO telescopes at Sutherland to investigate the structure of our own galaxy and to derive a new calibration of the extragalactic distance scale. He also used the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) to good effect, discovering Cepheid variable stars at large distances behind the Galactic Centre. He published over 300 refereed papers, the first in 1948 and the latest in 2019.

At the time of his death, Michael was a National Research Foundation (NRF) A1-rated researcher. He had won the Gill Medal of the Astronomical Society of South Africa, the De Beers Gold Medal of the SAIP, and in 2014 was presented with the NRF Lifetime Achievement award.

He was responsible for the development of the SAAO as a major national and international facility. Initially a joint enterprise with the British Science Research Council, this developed into an entirely South African operation under his leadership. The telescope time was available to anyone who had a good enough project, and this attracted international visitors. This also led to fruitful exchanges of scientific and technical knowledge and was highly stimulating to the SAAO staff, both scientific and technical. He took a strong personal interest in all research done at the SAAO and critically read every paper written by a staff member before it was submitted for publication. He encouraged international collaborations and insisted that publication was in first rank international journals.

The work carried out at SAAO by staff and by astronomers from South African and international universities and institutions during the time of Michael’s directorship of SAAO has not only led to the recognition of South Africa as a major component in world astronomy, it has shown that South Africa’s geography, climate and its technical development makes it an excellent place to establish astronomical facilities. It is clear that these factors were significant in convincing international partners to join with South Africa in SALT at SAAO, Sutherland. That in turn positioned South Africa to bid to host the Square Kilometre Array.

May his gentle soul rest in peace! He would be greatly missed by friends, colleagues and family.

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