Joe Burns lauded at dedication of office named in his honor

By: Blaine Friedlander,  Cornell Chronicle
Wed, 09/14/2016

With enough warmth and admiration to fill an expanding universe, colleagues, family and friends of Joe Burns, Ph.D. ’66, dedicated a brand-new office – the Joseph Burns Faculty Office – in the freshly renovated Upson Hall on Sept. 13.

“I want all of you to know how much this dedication means to me,” said Burns, the Irving Porter Church Professor of Engineering and professor of astronomy. “I want to thank the Cornell staff, colleagues, trustees, former students, advisees, family and friends – all of whom have enriched my experience here by not taking themselves – or me – too seriously….”

Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering, recalled first meeting Burns when Collins was a Penn State faculty member. Collins recounted his interest in atmospheric cloud formation, which is similar to planet formation – one of Burns’ academic interests.

Collins also recited a list of Burns’ career achievements – as a distinguished scientist, editor of the astronomy journal Icarus, award-winning teacher, Cornell vice provost for physical sciences and engineering, and dean of the university faculty.

A note from Cornell President Emeritus David Skorton was read: “I cannot bring to mind more than a handful of individuals in my career who have been at once superb and caring teachers, dedicated and successful researchers, and consummate university citizens. In short: ideal faculty colleagues. Joe Burns stands high on that list.”

Said Steve Squyres ’81, the James A. Weeks Professor of Physical Sciences and Burns’ longtime friend: “I have been a big Joe Burns fan for 40 years, and I was terrified of him at first,” because Burns used mathematical equations to resolve the cosmos. “As an undergraduate geology major … they seemed like useful concepts, but those concepts when applied with skill to the intricate complexity of all the bodies of the solar system – it’s an art form.”

Squyres continued: “That intricate structure that you see in the rings of Saturn – the interplay between Saturn’s moons and all the particles in its rings – has been elucidated to an enormous degree by the work of Joe Burns. That body of work – to me – stands as his crowning achievement.” The new plaque adjacent to the room features a nod to his work – a stylized Saturn.

As a young faculty member, Squyres recalled, “… I learned the ropes and because of the confidence that Joe had in me – a young, very inexperienced scientist – I began a process starting to participate in the programmatic side (such as working with NASA) of the way we do our science.”

In the early 1990s, the Cassini mission was in danger of cancellation. Burns took a practical approach and brought Squyres to Washington. “We went to Capitol Hill – traipsing up and down the corridors of the Hart Building, the Rayburn Building … talking to the right senators’ staffers, the right congressional staffers, the proper committees. I observed Joe and I learned – I learned an enormous amount. It has served me well."

Joining in the celebration were Burns’ wife, Judith Klein Burns, M.F.A. ’67, and his children, Patrick Burns ’09, M.A. ’15, and Caitlin Burns.

Patrick Burns – who said his father is his role model – described lively dinner conversation at home: “I developed a deep respect for my father. He would speak with such enthusiasm about his job, talk at length about an interaction with one of his students. … It took me a while to understand the depth [of my father’s] dedication.”

He continued: “Perhaps it was my mother who said it best a few months back when talking to me about what attracted her to my dad. She said, ‘Your father … is the most exciting person I have met, and I was drawn to him immediately.’”

This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.