LANL astrophysicist Dimitri Mihalas dies at 74

Dimitri Mihalas Courtesy photo

He was a world class astrophysicist, humble about his mind, who learned to live with depression and bipolar disorder.

Dimitri Mihalas, a Los Alamos National Laboratory astrophysicist, died the way he wanted to — in his sleep at his Santa Fe home on Nov. 21. He was 74. Mahalas was hired as a staff scientist in the applied physics department in 1998 and retired from the lab in 2012, according to LANL.

Mihalas was born March 20, 1939, in Los Angeles, Calif. He received degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles, and California Institute of Technology in astronomy, mathematics and physics.

He worked for three decades as an astronomy professor at the University of Chicago, the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

He was a pioneer in astrophysics, specializing in radiation transport, radiation hydrodynamics and astrophysical quantitative spectroscopy. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1981 at an age more than a decade younger than the usual entrants.

He co-authored seven scientific books, including Foundations of Radiation Hydrodynamics, a highly technical manual considered a “Bible” on the subject among his peers.

LANL physicist Bob Weaver helped him with the book. They became friends 40 years ago when Mihalas was his professor at the University of Colorado. He said Mihalas was a mild-mannered guy who was world renowned in the field of radiation transfer.

In a 2008 interview with the Los Alamos Monitor, Mihalas called himself intelligent, but not a genius. But Weaver said, “by a long shot, he was one of the smartest people I know. From my perspective, he was a genius.”

Weaver said Mihalas was a patient mentor to students and younger scientists. “It was a passion of his to convey his knowledge to younger people,” Weaver said.

“He was also very tolerant of people who were not near as smart as he was,” Weaver said. “That’s a rare trait among highly intelligent people.”

Mihalas and a colleague had finished updating the third edition of his book Stellar Atmospheres. It was in the process of being published when he passed away, said his wife, Anke Mihalas.

Mihalas was diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder when he was in his 40s, though he thought signs of the conditions dated to his childhood. He wrote about his experiences in essays such as “Surviving Depression and Bipolar Disorder” and “A Primer on Depression and Bipolar Disorder” in 2002. Mihalas, a Quaker, also wrote about how his spirituality was strengthened during his struggles in his 1996 book Depression and Spiritual Growth.

Mihalas was among millions of Americans and people around the world who have been diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder, which is marked by pronounced changes in mood, among other symptoms.

Mihalas also published several other non-science poetry books including Coming Back From the Dead, Dream Shadows and A Distant Summons.

Mihalas had been suffering memory loss recently, something he feared, said his wife. Recently he had been reading brain books and playing video games on his iPad in an attempt to rebuild some of his brain’s circuitry, she said. He was doing well, so his death “was totally unexpected,” she said. “But this is how he wanted to die. He wanted to go to sleep and not wake up.

“He was such a good guy.”

A gathering of friends and families will be held at his home. Mihalas did not want a memorial service.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.

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(1) comment

Rosemary Blanchard

Rest in the Light of Peace, my dear Friend Dimitri.

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