Loss of a colleague

Last month, I was informed of the passing of Martyn Wells. Martyn worked as an optical engineer at the UK ATC as part of the Royal Observatory, Edinborough. Martyn had contributed to many different projects with arguably the most significant being the lead Optical Designer for the very successful MIRI instrument on JWST.

However, I met Martyn under very different circumstances. I believe it was around 2007 when Martyn spent about six months in Cape Town and Sutherland helping us identify the imaging problems with the Southern African Large Telescope. I had started as a postdoc shortly before this expecting to use SALT for my research, but the telescope was not able to be focused due to problems eventually tracked to the Spherical Aberation Correction. I can’t say I’m familiar with all the details, but I believe Marytn had some time available (I’m not sure how as I’m pretty sure this was around the time he would have been working on MIRI), and Darragh O’Donoghue had invited him down to take a look at the problem.

It was during this time that I had the fortunate opportunity to work closely with Martyn. The problem was still undiagnosed, and it was also variable. We had long discussions about possible ways to in situ diagnose the problems. While I had some familiarity with optics, this was a six month long master class with a true expert in the field. From diving into the details of Zernike polynomials to analyzing the different aberrations, Martyn seemed to have an endless depth of knowledge of optics that he shared freely. I wish I still retained a tenth of the knowledge that Martyn had shared with me. I will always appreciate his generosity in the time that I spent with him.

This work all led to a very clever technique of using the segmented mirror as a giant Hartmann mask to measure the optical quality. It contributed to diagnosing the quality of the problem with SALT and while it is generalizable to other telescopes, I’m glad it hasn’t been further needed to be used.

I have vague recollections of him telling me about MIRI during the middle of the night while we were testing the telescope with little idea that fifteen years later my parter, Sarah Kendrew, would be the long time MIRI instrument scientist and now lead.

I would best describe Martyn as a dear colleague. Martyn and I would catch up at SPIE meetings and we reconnected around the launch of JWST. We were both watching from afar during the early commission period, and we shared some enjoyable conversations over what we saw in those very first images released from JWST. While we both marveled at the beautiful galaxies, it was the PSF of the stars that really excited us.

Martyn was an incredibly kind and generous person. He was also incredibly brilliant and humble. His precision and care in his work was a model for others. I learned so much more than just optics from him about how scientists and engineers can work together. I always enjoyed our conversations over dinner at the observatory.

My condolences to his family and friends. His work as an engineer, which is often the unsung engineering work that drives astronomy forward, will have a long and lasting impact on the field.

Written on September 10, 2023