Astronomer Karlis Kaufmanis, 'Star of Bethlehem' Lecturer, Dies at 93
Who: Karlis Kaufmanis
Contacts: Len Kuhi, chair, astronomy department, (612) 624-7053
Deane Morrison, University News Service, (612) 624-2346
(07/07/2003) —Retired University of Minnesota astronomy professor Karlis Kaufmanis, who delighted thousands with his holiday season "Star of Bethlehem" lecture, died June 21 in Florida, where he had lived for several years. Kaufmanis, 93, had suffered a series of strokes, including a major one a few weeks ago.
Born Feb. 21, 1910, in Riga, Latvia, Kaufmanis was educated at the State Teachers Institute, Latvia, and the University of Latvia. After holding positions at the University of Latvia (1936-40), French Lyceum (1940-44) and Essingler Gymnasium, Germany (1945-48), he moved to Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., as an associate professor in 1949. He joined the University of Minnesota as a visiting lecturer in 1961 and became an associate professor in 1963. He held the rank of full professor from 1970 until his retirement in 1978.
Kaufmanis taught the introductory astronomy course to more than 26,000 students during his years at the University of Minnesota. He was known for his wit and his passionate devotion to astronomy, which never waned.
"When I first came to Minnesota in 1972, Karlis Kaufmanis was the preeminent teacher in the School of Physics and Astronomy," said University of Minnesota astronomy professor Roberta Humphreys. "He routinely received applause from the students after his lectures. His lectures were almost like a polished theatrical performance. His popularity was not due to easy grading but to a very gentlemanly/old-school style in and outside of the classroom."
Besides his formal duties, Kaufmanis delivered more than a thousand public lectures on astronomy to colleges, schools, clubs, conferences, churches and other organizations throughout the United States and Canada. He is best remembered in the Twin Cities for his talk on the Star of Bethlehem, in which he examined the possible astronomical explanations for the biblical story of the "star in the east." Kaufmanis concluded that the star was most likely due to a spectacular set of three close pairings of Jupiter and Saturn that took place in 7 B.C. He presented the lecture to Minnesota audiences for many years after his retirement from the university. The lecture was also aired over the Voice of America, and Kaufmanis explained his ideas on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Kaufmanis published several textbooks dealing with astronomy, mathematics and cosmology (the study of the origin and evolution of the universe). He was a member of the American Astronomical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Mathematical Association of America and the Royal Astronomical Society.
The University of Minnesota astronomy department honors Kaufmanis with its Kaufmanis Public Lecture Series, which brings well-known scientists to campus. Kaufmanis also received an All-University Award for teaching at the University of Minnesota. His other honors include the Katie Award for best performance on Minnesota Educational Television; the Kaufmanis Scholarship, established by Gustavus Adolphus students; and the naming of Kaufmanis Way, a street in Eagan, Minn.
Kaufmanis is survived by his wife, Rita, of Clearwater, Fla., and nephew Andris Pulkis and family of Riga, Latvia. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Friday, July 11, in Lakewood Cemetery chapel, 3600 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis. In lieu of flowers, donations are preferred to the Astronomy Department, University of Minnesota, 116 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis MN 55455, to help support the Kaufmanis Public Lecture Series; or to Christ Latvian Lutheran Church, in care of the church treasurer, Andris Spruds, 3800 Pierce St. N.E., Minneapolis MN 55421.