Richard E. White
Emeritus Professor of Astronomy

Before coming to Smith in 1974, I had received my Ph.D. from Columbia University (NY), held a Carnegie Fellowship at what is now the Carnegie Observatories (Pasadena, CA), and been a post-doctoral fellow at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (New York, NY). I received my B.S. from St. Joseph’s College (IN).


My primary research interest was the physics and chemistry of the interstellar medium, particularly as revealed by absorption lines in stellar spectra. The interstellar medium near the Pleiades star cluster is remarkable laboratory for investigation of interstellar processes, which prompted me to focus research on that region. A survey of interstellar sodium absorption lines in the spectra of 36 stars in and projected near the Pleiades revealed remarkable complexity for such a relatively nearby target (roughly 400 light years away). Detailed analysis of the spectroscopic observations, in the context of additional data on the optical reflection and infrared emission from associated dust and radio observations of the gas, led to the conclusion that the kinematic and spatial complexities arise because the Pleiades are colliding with not one, but two distinct interstellar clouds, converging from different directions.


Among other activities at Smith, I served as co-director for the 1998-2000 Kahn Liberal Arts Institute project, “Galileo at the Millennium.” For me, the Galileo project was an opportunity to combine a long-standing interest in the history of astronomy with an emerging interest in environmental policy. That interest had led me to develop a course on the science and policy of global climate change in the Public Policy Program, which I taught in 1995, 1998, and 2001


Growing passion around the issues of climate change and sustainability prompted my decision to take early retirement in 2002. That year, I authored the first report on sustainability at Smith and chaired the Northampton Citizens for Climate Protection. In 2003, I moved with my wife to Durango, Colorado, and began describing myself as a “sustainability advocate.” I served on the boards of several local sustainability organizations, including a 3-year stint as the founding Chair of the Sustainability Alliance of Southwest Colorado. I also served on two civic committees (including one that developed the La Plata County Climate and Energy Action Plan) before running for a seat on the Durango City Council in 2011. My term runs until 2015 and included a year as Mayor (April 2014-April 2015) in the customary rotation of that office.


Recently, my sustainability interests also have led me to begin study of the crucial issue of food security.

Selected Publications
White, R. E. 2013, “Food Security, Population, and Reproductive Health,” in Global Population and Reproductive Health, McFarlane, D. R. (ed.), ISBN: 978-144-96-8520-1, (Jones & Bartlett: Burlington, MA), 53 pp. manuscript, in press.
White, R. E. 2012, “Fossil Fuel and Food Security,” in Fossil Fuel and the Environment, Kahn, S. (ed), ISBN: 978-953-51-0277-9, (Intech: Rijeka, Croatia), pp. 279-304.
White, R. E.  2011, Mercury, 40, #2, Spring, 12-17, “Chandrasekhar: The Most Distinguished Astrophysicist of his Time.”
White R. E. & Gonzalez M., G. E.  2007, World Watch, May/June, pp. 18-23, “Sustainability in the Tropics.”
White, R. E.  2003, Astrophysical Journal Supplement, 148, 487-517, “Interstellar Matter Near the Pleiades. VI. Evidence for an Interstellar Three-Body Encounter.”
White, R. E.  2002, November, Smith College report, "Sustainability at Smith College," 15 pp.
White, R. E., Allen, C. L., Forrester, W. B., Gonnella, A. M., and Young, K. L.  2001, Astrophysical Journal Supplement, 132, 253-280, “Interstellar Matter Near the Pleiades. V. Observations of Na I toward 36 Stars."
Chaffee, F. H., Jr., and White, R. E.  1982, Astrophysical Journal Supplement, 50, 169-198, “A Survey of Interstellar Neutral Potassium. I. Abundances and Physical Conditions in Clouds Toward 188 Early-Type Stars.”