Faculty Highlights: Joe Veverka

Professor of Astronomy, Chairman of the Department of Astronomy

College of Arts and Sciences

Photo of Faculty Highlights: Joe Veverka

Faculty Highlights: Joe Veverka

When Joe Veverka celebrated his 60th birthday in 2001, the Department of Astronomy came up with a novel gift: an open ticket to see any opera performance anywhere in the world.

But before Veverka and his wife, astronomy researcher Ann Harch, could take advantage of the gift, both of their mothers fell ill. So it is only now that the couple is able to plan a visit to the Stadtoper, the State Opera House in Vienna, where many of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's operas were first performed.

"Vienna is a nice place for opera, and it's a nice place to boot," said Veverka.

Veverka's love of opera began in the 1950s when he was a young man growing up in the small northern Canadian town of Cochrane, Ontario. In that time and remote location -- with the nearest town of any size more than 70 miles away -- his main source of entertainment was the radio. "I liked to listen to everything on the radio then, from the 'Lone Ranger' show to the Saturday afternoon broadcasts of opera performances from the Met," Veverka recalled.

It was these broadcasts that began a lifelong interest in opera for the man who would one day become a professor of astronomy at Cornell, chairman of the Department of Astronomy and one of the world's leading experts on comets.

Back in his early days in Canada, Veverka vividly recalls winning a radio essay contest for which he received a complete recording of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" on LP vinyl records. "I still have the set," said Veverka. "They were among the first long-playing records of opera produced by RCA and would have been rather expensive to purchase for a young boy like myself."

Veverka not only "enjoys the beauty of the music," but is also drawn to the plays and dramas behind the operas. "In some cases drama can be much more effective with music," he said. There is also the versatility inherent in the recitative: "In plays, four actors cannot talk at the same time, but in opera this can work."

With a busy departmental and research schedule, "I don't spend a lot of time traveling to operas," he explained. "But I enjoy the recordings I have of them. To me listening to opera in this way is a much more personal experience. I can listen to the music more than once. I can also enjoy some obscure pieces of opera that are not performed in concert in the United States very often."

Among his favorite operas are those by the Sicilian composer Vincenzo Bellini, who died in 1835 at the age of 33. His works helped to define the operatic style known as bel canto in which the natural beauty of the voice is emphasized. "Bellini's music to me is very beautiful," explained Veverka. "His operas are unusually melodic and lyrical. I respond to his pieces with deep emotions."

Veverka also enjoys the works of composers from the earlier Classical period, such as those by Mozart. "My favorite Mozart operas are "The Magic Flute," "The Marriage of Figaro," and "Don Giovanni," said Veverka. "They are beautiful and often funny."

Opera is not his only passion: His other -- besides research -- is cooking. Veverka recalled that as a doctoral student at Harvard he "liked to eat well but had limited resources." So he made his own meals and soon found he enjoyed cooking -- which he quickly learned to combine with his love of opera.

"When I make elaborate meals, I like to listen to opera while preparing them," said Veverka. The nationality of the composer often reflects the cuisine, such as French or Italian. He also cooks Czech food, an appropriate choice for a man who was born in Pelhrimov, Czechoslovakia (now in the Czech Republic). When the Communists took over the country after World War II, his family fled to France and then, ultimately, to northern Ontario.

Under the large, dark night skies of the Arctic watershed, the budding astronomer grew up. The starry skies of his remote Cochrane and the space race that followed the Soviet Union's launch of the satellite Sputnik 1 in 1957 caught him up in the excitement of astronomy and the possibilities for exploring the heavens.

Veverka's research eventually brought him to Cornell, where he has spent the last three decades as part of numerous missions to the planets, asteroids and comets. Most of these missions were successful, but space probes are among the riskier forms of scientific research.

Such was the case with NASA's Comet Nucleus Tour mission, or Contour, for which Veverka was the principal investigator. Just one month after being launched into space on July 3, 2002, the rocket motor exploded before it could push the probe out of its Earth parking orbit and on the way to its first comet. The failure of the mission abruptly ended Veverka's decades of involvement.

Alhough Veverka accepted the loss as "part of the business" of exploring space, he had two primary reactions to Contour. He was saddened at the scientific setbacks from the comet probe being unable to complete its goals. And he was deeply concerned about the feelings and reactions of all the other people who had worked on Contour, many of whom had devoted years of their lives and careers to that one mission.

Losing Contour was "like losing a member of the family," said Veverka. "Everyone was focused on that one mission. Plus, any kind of effort of this sort tends to establish close working relationships with the team members. Contour's unexpected termination was a dramatic event for everyone."

Veverka knew it was important to move on with his work. He made sure that the Contour team members were employed. He also proposed launching a replacement Contour mission, but NASA was not ready to fund another Discovery-class mission.

"Perhaps in another 10 years," mused Veverka.