This memorial website was created in the memory of our colleague and friend, Don Backer.  Please post your comments and stories here. 

The Donald C. Backer Memorial Fund has been set up at the University of California, Berkeley to honor him and insure that the science he pursued with relentless energy and passion will continue.  If you would like to donate to this fund, please go to

Posted by Geoffrey Marcy on November 9, 2020
Dear Don,

I miss you as much as ever. Your beloved Astronomy Department needs you more than ever. You'll be delighted to know that the Allen Telescope Array has received new funding, enabling unique science. Still, American astrophysics dearly needs your guidance and wisdom.
Posted by Casey Law on July 27, 2020
I continue to acknowledge Don's contribution to my research and the way I conduct my research. I wouldn't be where I am today without his patient and kind support during my time at UCB.
Posted by Geoffrey Marcy on July 25, 2020
Don - We miss you more than ever. The entire world needs your love of community, communication, and shared humanity. I am still learning from you.
Posted by Jill Tarter on July 25, 2020
It is hard to believe that we've been without your guidance and friendship for 10 years. I think you would be pleased with the continued progress in the projects you helped launch - HERA and the ATA.
Posted by Shauna Sallmen on November 10, 2019
Miss your calm wisdom and think of you often.
Posted by Geoffrey Marcy on November 9, 2019
We all miss you so much. It's not just the the astronomy community that needs your kindness, communication, and human appreciation. 
Posted by Justin Jonas on November 9, 2019
So I was in the Karoo this week hosting a public visit, with MeerKAT, HERA and the SKA prototype dish as the main attractions. Aaron was finishing up some site work, and Dave arrives this next week. I think you would be intrigued the developments out there - and it would have been such an honour to have you on site again. But I introduced a no alcohol policy, so no red wine I'm afraid.
Posted by Jill Tarter on July 26, 2019
Dammit, Don this doesn't get easier! i wish i had you as my partner to keep pushing the envelope of what is astrophysical and what is astroengineering.
Posted by Geoffrey Marcy on July 26, 2019
Don, this is the 9th anniversary of your passing.
When I reflect on you, I always think of two aspects of your life.

You were dedicated to extraordinary innovation, both in ideas and instrumentation. From millisecond pulsars to CASPER, you so enjoyed new productive directions.

I also reflect on your dedication to respectful interactions and peaceful bridges. Sometimes I thought you emphasized human connections and handshakes more than necessary, but I now know you were right. 
Posted by Jill Tarter on July 26, 2018
Don - this dystopian world we live in today would be much improved if we could again bask in your radiant smile and consult with your wisdom.
Posted by Geoffrey Marcy on July 25, 2018
Dear Don, I think of you often, especially when passing your house on Euclid and Cedar. Your kindness toward the people in your circles still leaves me wishing you were here. You would be delighted at the evolution of Berkeley Radio Astronomy Lab, CASPER, and the ATA that contributed science motivation, technical knowledge, and pathfinders to the inauguration of MeerKAT, celebrated last week in South Africa, and to the future SKA. You are dearly missed, but also still contributing.
Posted by Geoffrey Marcy on November 9, 2017
Dear Don,

We miss you as much as ever. Your warmth and appreciation of the human and social aspects of science still move me. You loved people as much as science. Your science lives on, with the pursuit of many exciting time-dependent phenomena observable at radio and all wavelengths. And your science lives on, with your many students who are continuing to do beautiful research, a living tribute to you.
Posted by Jill Tarter on July 25, 2017
You would have really enjoyed the Kerastari conference this year, with growing insights into the transient sky - work you helped initiate.
Posted by Geoffrey Marcy on July 25, 2017
Dear Don,
Your passion for dialogue, collaboration, and innovative research rings true for everyone to this day. Thank you for your thoughtfulness and kindness.
Posted by Geoffrey Marcy on July 26, 2016
We're missing you, Don, as much as ever.
Posted by Casey Law on July 25, 2016
This anniversary comes a few days after I presented results that have grown from our collaboration on fast correlators. I was able to remind my audience of your great guidance and support for our small germ of an idea at the ATA. It has now bloomed into a much larger project and I hope to continue building it in your honor, Don.
Posted by Jill Tarter on July 25, 2016
Each day, when I drive by your house, I wonder how much better things would be if we still had your wise council. Aaron and the HERA team are doing well and FAST and Meerkat are enlarging our capabilities. What would you have added?
Posted by Geoffrey Marcy on July 25, 2015
Dear Don,

We need you now, more than ever, in so many different ways.

Meanwhile, we're revving up Green Bank with CASPER technology, all a tribute to your inspiration, still vibrant. 

Posted by Jill Tarter on July 25, 2014
I was thinking of you yesterday - as many of us do - wondering what you might have advised. Hat Creek Radio Observatory still continues and we are very slowly making the ATA a better instrument. I wish you were here to enjoy the exploration. You would have been all over these new FRBs.
Posted by Christopher McKee on November 9, 2013
You left us too soon, Don. We miss your friendship, your leadership, your inspiration. Time has healed the shock of your passing, but it will never erase our memories of you.
Posted by Fred K. Y. Lo on November 9, 2013
Remembering Don on his 70th birthday, I am struck by how much I miss him, a thought that has come up on so many occasions since his passing away. Thoughtful, visionary, creative, insightful, responsible, gentle and gentlemanly, perseverance, leadership, ... come to mind when I remember Don.
Posted by Jill Tarter on July 25, 2013
Don - in your absence the UCB Radio Astronomy Lab may not be strong enough to withstand the ministrations of your departmental colleagues. The world changes. We at the SETI Institute continue to support the ATA and keep trying to make it shine. Though you did not start the ATA, you literally gave your all to support it. In your life you did much good, for many, and we miss you.
Posted by Thomas Wilson on January 24, 2013
Both Ursula and I were surprised and shocked by Don's passing. I have only now become aware of this web site. Ursula and I wish to use this as a chance to honor Don for his contributions to science and his wonderful personality. Our condolences to Susan and his son.
Sincerely, Ursula and Tom Wilson
Posted by Judey Miller on July 25, 2012
Don - There are been a number of times that I wished for you to join in the conversation or lead the debates as we deal with the myriad issues relating to the construction of New Campbell Hall. But, you planted many seeds and set many plans in motion that are still unfolding.
The curved wall near the entrance to NCH seems to be acquiring its only proper name - the "Backer Wall".
Posted by Jill Tarter on July 25, 2012
It's been two rocky years since we lost Don. The ATA is still operating, but there remains a vacuum of wisdom and kindness that I miss every day.
Posted by Jill Tarter on November 9, 2011
Happy birthday, Don. I've been following behind you from birth, to Cornell, to struggling to support the ATA. There is some progress, and as i drive by your house almost daily, I say a brief hello.
Posted by Neil Biswaß on September 6, 2011
I met Don in 2004 while working on the first antenna and backend for the Precision Array for EOR in Green Bank, West Virginia. I remember sitting on the sidewalk in front of Jansky lab and eating pizza with him, and driving back to Charlottesville. Great man !
Posted by rick forster on July 26, 2011
Remembering Don brings up images of his kind face and gentle smile. He was very special both as a scientist and a person.
Posted by nina ruymaker on July 26, 2011
Can't help but imagine Don settling in at HFA, our 'summer camp' - i can hear him referring to it as Biblical: Pestilence in bldg C (giant black flies & squirrel invasion), Sweltering Heat in bldg D, & Floods in bldg B...
remembering him & missing him here.
Posted by Mary Urry on July 26, 2011
Lynn and Mary Anne Urry really miss Don
Posted by Shauna Sallmen on July 25, 2011
After a year I can still hardly believe this news. Don was a warm and friendly thesis advisor who always offered encouragement.
Posted by Tom Bania on July 25, 2011
Jim Moran's recent obit in Physics Today made me think about Don. I first met Don in 1971, my first year of grad school at UVa when he was on his NRAO postdoc. He was always willing to chat and support a callow grad student. I just posted a story here about him.
Posted by Casey Law on July 25, 2011
One year ago, Glenn Jones and I were observing at Hat Creek when we received the news of Don's death. Don made those very observations possible by his warm encouragement and his technical expertise. Today, by publishing that work, we hope to add a little more to his legacy.
Posted by Maxim Lyutikov on December 17, 2010
Don was such a fiery, lively person. I'm very very saddened.
Posted by Penny Strauss on October 22, 2010
I graduated high school with Don.I just found out about his passing when we were looking for our reunion.There are so many good things L could say about Don,although I hadn't seen him in many years.He was one of the most handsome men in our class.HE was also very intelligent.There is nothing bad I could say.He will be missed by all our classmates.Penny Strauss
Posted by Franck Marchis on September 28, 2010
Don has been always a support for the research and administrative staff of the department. After 10 years working at UC-Berkeley and at the SETI Institute, I am certain that we will miss this great scientist, humble professor, dynamic mentor and gentle friend. My condolences to all his family.
Posted by Louis Abrahamson on September 27, 2010
While we were both students at Jodrell Bank from Sept. 1966 until March 1967, Don and I shared an attic "flat" in Wilmslow England. We had many many hours of discussions on almost every topic imaginable including those rooted in our different backgrounds: mine in South Africa and his in the Eastern US. At my wedding in April '67 he was my "Best Man." I'm shocked and saddened at his death.
Posted by Janet kutulas on September 27, 2010
As an administrative staff member of the Radio Astronomy Lab, I think back on the everyday contact with Don with pleasure, whether just walking past him in the hall (with his characteristic fast walk), or remembering his good natured laughter at all the Xmas party Don impersonations. Busy as he was, with his desk and chair right next to the door, he made me feel like he was always there for us.
Posted by Alex Filippenko on September 22, 2010
It is still very difficult for me to accept that Don Backer is no longer with us. He was one of the kindest, most caring people I have ever known, and a tremendous scientist as well. His leadership within our Astronomy Department, his great passion for discovery, and his wonderful friendship will be deeply missed.
Posted by Matthew Fleming on September 21, 2010
Although I have worked at RAL for a long time, I only recently began to know Don. I was so impressed and hopeful as I watched him assume a larger leadership role. He was clearly very gifted in many ways. I miss the opportunity to know him better. My condolences to Susan, David and family, and my thanks for sharing him with us.
Posted by rick forster on September 21, 2010
Don's integrity as a person and scientist impressed me when I first met him in the 1970s and continued to inspire me to try to be more like him over the next 35 years. There's no one like Don Backer.
Posted by Christopher McKee on September 21, 2010
You left us before your time. The world will miss what you would have accomplished, your colleagues will miss your wise counsel and leadership, and I will miss your friendship.
Posted by diana duong on September 16, 2010
I will always remember and be grateful to Prof. Backer for the way he treated his administrative staff with kindness and dignity. I am sorry to hear of his sudden passing.
Posted by anne green on August 26, 2010
It is with enormous sadness that the astronomy world must accept we have lost one of our great scientists. Don was a excellent astronomer and a wonderful human being, always showing warmth, consideration and enthusiasm to all of us who knew him. I learned so much from him. He had a great sense of life and fun. What a loss. However, his legacy will remain. My deepest sympathy to all his family.
Posted by Gerry Harp on August 19, 2010
Don was always generous with his time, answering naive questions when I joined the group and later to vetting my ideas for experiments. He was a mentor, a trustworthy advisor, and friend.
Posted by Gerrit Verschuur on August 18, 2010
I knew Don from the first MSc course we set up at Jodrell and delighted in his and Susan's friendship back in the "old" days. This is very sad and my sympathies are with Susan and the family.
Posted by Reinhard Genzel on August 18, 2010
Don, you were a wonderful person. Straight, honest and always with the right perspective. Your passing so early saddens me. A great friend and scientist gone.
Posted by Shep Doeleman on August 13, 2010
It was always a pleasure to see Don. He had wonderful insights on science and how to get things done, and he never failed to offer hearty encouragement. I will miss his good spirits.
Posted by Andrew Jaffe on August 9, 2010
Don was a humble man, and a wonderful scientist, collaborator and friend. I miss the work we will not get to do, and the conversations we will never have. My condolences to his family and loved ones
Posted by Alberto Bolatto on August 5, 2010
Don's figure looms large as a scientist, a technical person, and an exceptional human being. I am proud to have work alongside him a the RAL. I will forever miss his insight and humility.
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Recent Tributes
Posted by Geoffrey Marcy on November 9, 2020
Dear Don,

I miss you as much as ever. Your beloved Astronomy Department needs you more than ever. You'll be delighted to know that the Allen Telescope Array has received new funding, enabling unique science. Still, American astrophysics dearly needs your guidance and wisdom.
Posted by Casey Law on July 27, 2020
I continue to acknowledge Don's contribution to my research and the way I conduct my research. I wouldn't be where I am today without his patient and kind support during my time at UCB.
Posted by Geoffrey Marcy on July 25, 2020
Don - We miss you more than ever. The entire world needs your love of community, communication, and shared humanity. I am still learning from you.
Recent stories

Two Memorable Green Bank experiments

Shared by Tom Bania on July 25, 2011

I first met Don in 1971, my first year of grad school at UVa and he was on his NRAO PostDoc.
He was always willing to chat and support a callow grad student.

I remember two experiments he did over the years in Green Bank with especial awe because, as usual for Don,
he used equipment in extremely novel ways.

In the early 1970s he followed *individual* pulsar pulses in frequency by using all 5 GB telescope independently
tuned to different frequencies (the 140 ft, the 300 ft, and the 3 85 ft interferometer elements).  This required
writing a complete operating system for the interferometer which had never at that point been used as
individual telescopes tuned to different frequencies.

In the mid 1980s he studied giant pulses from the Crab -- these things are 103 stronger than the mean pulse
intensity but are both infrequent, say, 1/5000, and sporadic.  His pulsar back end in GB had finite bandwidth of
course and, in those days, finite storage capacity.  So he couldn't just crank away and observe continuously.
His solution was to team with Tim Hankins who observed the Crab at L band at the VLA which had a mode
where they could observe constantly albeit at low resolution.  When Tim found a giant pulse, he sent a
trigger signal to Don at the 140 ft *over the Internet* so he could turn on his pulsar backend to sample
at 800 MHz with 85-2.  To make this work they had to synch the clocks of
their computers for days, again over the internet, taking out packet speed fluctuations by polling many,
many different clocks around the internet.  At least that is what I recall.

As Jim Moran said in Physics Today, we are all much poorer now from the loss of his humanity as well as his technical gifts.

Field trip!

Shared by nina ruymaker on September 24, 2010

i had been working for the Astronomy Department only a short while, when Don thought it would be a good idea to take the new hires up to Hat Creek Radio Observatory for a look around & to meet the staff there. I jumped at the opportunity to leave town; what could be better than to be in Mount Lassen country? Don, Robert, Andrea, & I met in the early hours downtown Berkeley & headed north. Once there, we had a staff meeting & now were able to put a face to the names of people we had been working with via telephone/email.  Susie & Don took us around in the Jeep & gave us the grand tour, Don trying his best to explain in layman terms just what was going on up there; yep, a little hot & arid, but beautiful country all around. Susie advised checking out Burney Falls, where we took a hike and considered jumping in the lake nearby. We luxuriated in our surroundings; exploring the lava tubes, taking beautiful moonlit bicycle rides in the middle of the night.On our way back home, we tried to climb Mt. Lassen, but being a little unprepared - such as trying to scramble up steep icy inclines in tennis shoes - proved to be too much, so we had to, most unwillingly, let it go...I still find it very difficult that someone so vital and engaged with life and those around him could be so suddenly gone from us. I will miss him, more than I can say.

nina ruymaker 



Goodbye, Don

Shared by Geoffrey Marcy on August 7, 2010

 In the past 5 years, I attended "executive Dept meetings" weekly with Don, while he was Chair of the Astronomy Dept. and then when he was the Director of RAL.    Of all the discussions, visions, budget troubles, restructuring, struggles, and conflicts that arose in those meetings, one thing stands out far above everything else.   Don was always finding ways to improve the communication, coherence, and collegiality of the astronomers in Berkeley.  

He always had a new organization in mind that would join everyone together to makes us  more than the sum of our parts.  "BACI" was the name of his beloved organization that brought Berkeley Astrophysics together.   He loved the idea that if people worked together they would be more creative and productive, and enjoy their work more.    He appreciated that people working together, rather than separately, was the key to unexpected innovation.    

He similarly took the Department's decadal Academic Review to heart, spending countless hours constructing that document, always involvilng everyone in the process.   He similarly encouraged  a diverse but coherent group of radio lab, digital electronics, and radio telescope design efforts, always thinking that some FPGA-type or DSP-type widget would emerge when folks with different expertise interacted.    And the new Campbell Hall project brought all of this together as Don constantly encouraged the architects to design interactive areas for astronomers to chat and bridges to allow cross-fertilization with physics.   Collegiality and interaction were dear to Don.   I've learned a lot from his patience, kindness and people-oriented science.