NASA’s biggest asset is its amazing people, and one of the best parts of working at NASA is the people you meet in the course of your job. Some are just awe-inspiring to meet (Buzz Aldrin), and others you get to work with closely or even have become your mentor. When someone finds out that I work for NASA, I often talk about the amazing people I work with just as much I do about the neat stuff that NASA does.
I had the extreme honor of knowing, working with, and being mentored by Dr. Baruch Blumberg, who sadly passed away earlier this month. Known as ‘Barry’ to his friends, including the NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI) where I work, he had a rare combination of being extremely intelligent and extremely wise at the same time.
Obituaries for Dr. Barry Blumberg abound on the internet, drawing attention to his amazing work with Hepatitis B, which has saved millions of lives. They also mention his work with NASA, such as his leadership in the then burgeoning field of astrobiology. Here I share some personal notes about Barry in both in the realm of intellectualism and humanity. Overall, nothing in life was ‘work’ to him: everyday was filled with passion for science, people, and the dynamics of the world around him.
Barry’s intellectual leadership was visible to anyone who interacted with him. He was a constant learner who used every opportunity to interact with someone as a learning opportunity. Arguably one of the smartest humans on the planet, Barry would ask so many questions and have a sense of wonder about it all, no matter who you were or what education level you had. One of the most noticeable attributes to Barry was his extreme humility, all the more noticeable considering his intellectual feats. One of the things he said that I shall always remember was, “You know, I’ve been an amateur at most things at life”. At 72 he embarked on a new career step, leading the NASA Astrobiology Institute. For him, it was something new and exciting that would bring him great joy. To the science community, it was an amazing asset to have his brilliance influence a new discipline.
“…I’ve been an amateur at most things in life.”
Barry Blumberg taught me so much about scientific thinking. One of his passions was Citizen Science, with one of his favorites being Moon Zoo, which he worked with via the NLSI. He emphasized the importance of first observing and coming up with new ideas, and really thinking about things before delving into the other parts of the scientific process. Amateurs particularly had a role in this, he pointed out.
Many have referred to Barry’s wisdom and humanity as well. I will always consider myself amazingly lucky to get to know him and be mentored by him. One of his first pieces of professional advice followed a meeting I organized and prepared for, but hesitated at taking the reigns of. Barry said that the work I prepared was really good and that I should lead the meeting. Even more memorable is that he said I had it in me. Let me tell you, when a Nobel Laureate says something to you, particularly that they believe in you, you remember it!
Barry’s wisdom of life was also visible. One of the first longer conversations I had with him was at a dinner party where he told me about seeing the film Last Chance Harvey. He ended up telling me most of the plot but I didn’t care because he was so thoughtful in sharing the human dynamics of the film. He really understood people. He saw good and potential in everyone, and wasn’t afraid to share that. He never spoke a word against anyone. Barry inspired people to be the person he saw in them, and to better themselves each day and live up to one’s full potential. One of Barry’s lasting influences on my life was his encouragement of me to return to graduate school for my scientific education. He never pushed, just gently encouraged. He supported my application for the Ames Graduate Co-op Program, from which I received an acceptance letter two days after Barry’s passing.
NASA (and the world) has lost an amazing asset. The people who personally knew Barry have lost a wonderful friend. I will greatly miss the little wisdoms of life he sprinkled about, and wish I could have asked him so many more questions. Your work and your heart will always be with us, Barry!