Leif J. Robinson, 1939–2011

Leif in his office at 48 Bay State Road.
S&T: Dennis di Cicco
All of us who work at Sky & Telescope are deeply saddened to receive news today that our long-time editor in chief, Leif J. Robinson, passed away yesterday at the age of 71. Leif died following a long illness at his home in Costa Rica, where he lived for most of the past decade.

Leif is a monumental figure in the history of S&T. He served on the editorial staff for 38 years, and was editor in chief from 1980 to his retirement in 2000. During his tenure S&T’s circulation grew significantly, and the magazine assumed a more prominent role in the amateur astronomy community.

Everyone who got to know Leif personally was touched by his passion for astronomy and birdwatching, his boisterous personality, and his lively sense of humor. Every one of us who worked with Leif was inspired by his strong leadership, which emphasized journalistic and ethical principles of accuracy and integrity. These core values continue to guide everything we do at S&T.

S&T: Dennis di Cicco
Even in retirement, Leif stayed active. He wrote the popular 50 & 25 column for S&T, and he continued to give talks to general audiences and amateur astronomers. Besides his immense contributions to S&T, Leif served on the Board of Directors of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and he wrote the critically acclaimed book Outdoor Optics.

Today is a day of mourning at S&T, but we are also celebrating his life and contributions. Leif’s legacy will always remain a part of who we are and what we do. We welcome reader comments about their memories of Leif and their feelings about his contributions to astronomy.

For more information and photographs, see our press release.

26 thoughts on “Leif J. Robinson, 1939–2011

  1. Trevor Moulton

    I am very saddened to hear of Leif’s passing. When I began reading S&T, Leif was the Editor in Chief. His monthly Spectrum column is what captured my interest in the magazine and helped turn me in to a loyal reader. Most of the time,it was almost like he was writing the column just for me. In his writing he made astronomy so accessible and even more interesting.

    To quote Carl Sagan: “We are all made of starstuff”. Leif was a star indeed.

  2. Mario Motta, MD

    I am sorry to hear of the passing of Leif Robinson. As a lifelong reader of S&T, Leif has “always” been part of my list of astronomy mentors and required reading. In later years, I got to know him quite well, and found him to be a warm and outgoing personality who went out of his way to encourage the amatuer community, and amatuer astronomers in general In fact, when I was awarded the Las Cumbras award by the ASP, I found out later it was Leif and Janet Mattei (AAVSO) who both supported my award, thus I will always be in his debt. I hope he is now viewing his favortie celestioal objects that he loved up close,

    Mario Motta, MD

  3. Joe Rao

    Like so many others, I am saddened to hear of the passing of Leif Robinson. I still remember as a teenager reading in the May 1970 issue of S&T about his adventure by car to observe the March 7, 1970 solar eclipse from Mexico with his good friend, astrophotographer, Bob Little. Bob passed away last December and now Leif is gone too.

    Leif presided over S&T during the years when I was writing feature articles about prospective Leonid storms. He and I were speakers at NEAF back in 1999 and that’s where I really got a chance to know him. Not only did I enjoy discussing astronomy with him, but occasionally in the years that followed I would drop him an E-Mail with a question about birdwatching.

    With the passing in recent months of Bob, Brian Marsden and now Leif, it is a sobering thought that some of the “old guard” that helped draw me into astronomy are now gone.

    – joe rao

  4. Jane Houston Jones

    I enjoyed getting to know Leif when we both served on the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s Board of Directors in the early 1990′s. I’m glad I got to get to know the man behind the printed words. I’ll miss those words but more than that I’ll miss his huge laugh and twinkling eyes. — Jane Houston Jones

  5. Robert Burnham

    I’m so sorry to hear of Leif’s death. He was one of the great people in the field and an all-around wonderful person to know.

    Some 15 years ago, I was on a panel with him at the Riverside Telescope Makers’ Conferenece, and I have never forgotten his comments about what magazines and editors do. His point was that even in a field where everybody is highly connected, editors have an essential role in sifting through the overwhelming flood of news, raw data, hype, and the like. Editors and reporters, he said, select.

    Bingo! And that’s as true now as it was then.

    I’m glad your notice mentions his birding interests — that was a side of him that relatively few in astronomy knew about. At Stellafane one year (don’t remember which) I looked up as a couple of birds zipped by on the way to an evergreen.

    “Hah! You spotted those cedar waxwings, too!” he said. I said, “Yeah!” as if I actually knew what they were. He then told me how to spot them at a glance by their flight, and this very novice birder came away a bit smarter.

    I’ll miss him, and so will every amateur astronomer.

  6. Dr. P. Clay Sherrod

    I had come to know Leif Robinson very well over the many years that he and I corresponded and feel very fortunate that I have always kept our written words filed neatly in the files of my observatory. His letters on blue letterhead will keep their place just as his broad smile will stay in the memories of all who had the pleasure of seeing it for the first time.

    As we grow older, we build up a degree of sadness by the passing of those around us to whom we have grown close; I have always said it is like never being able to throw away a comfortable pair of old socks….we simply cannot mentally ever part with good folks like Leif.

    We have lost in recent times Joseph Ashbrook, also of Sky & Telescope, Brian Marsden of Harvard/Smithsonian, and now Leif Robinson, all monumental figures in the promotion and popularization of astronomy to all of us.

    Dr. Clay
    Arkansas Sky Observatories

  7. Sam Storch

    Leif was certainly one of the “giants” at the foundation of Sky & Tel, but was to me a consummate gentleman. Always approachable, he was a careful listener, a “fountain” of insights and information, and was good-humored. Besides astronomy Leif enjoyed a number of other interests a lot of those reading this share- bird-watching, railroads, and more.

    I recall how eloquently he spoke years ago at the funeral for George Lovi, also a contributor to the magazine “back in the day.” Leif was deeply moved and truly spoke from the heart, something that was a wonderful surprise from an iconic figure from a major publication.

    May the many ways he explored the heavens and taught us be an inspiration for us to keep up our learning and curiosity.

  8. Michael Gardner

    I knew Leif, though not well, through the LAAS, and via mutual friends. Then and throughout his life, he knew what he was talking about. The group I was in that included Leif was sad but very excited for him when he took a job with “Sky & Tel.” In time, he led the magazine through one of the greatest of periods for amateur astronomy, and professional astronomy as well.

    Leif was an icon for amateur astronomy throughout the country.

    Rest well among the stars, old friend.
    Mike Gardner

  9. Don Whiteman Bintel

    I feel privileged to have met such a great man. I remember his sense of humour, we had a good laugh. He was the first person to take me birding in the US, after RTMC. I will always remember that. Guys like Leif don’t come along too often. He will be missed.

  10. Khalid Marwat

    My first view of Sky and Telescope was in 1989. Leif was the chief editor and the magazine had a classical look; with curvy logo and the central page showing ‘Stars for the Month’ on a hand drawn page.
    Leif brought many changes that some, including me, didn’t like. The original look was so homely. But he had a vision and quoted Alphonse Karr in the Spectrum of S&T July 1997 magazine,”The more things change, the more they remain the same”.
    He reassured us that the magazine will be “constant as the northern star.” He was right. S&T continues to be a favorite of astronomers all over the world.

  11. Derald Nye

    It is indeed a sad day learning that Leif has passed.
    I believe my first meeting of Leif and Bob Little was in 1970 at Nejapa, Mexico. They came to our camp site to see what
    we were planning. The car they were driving probably
    suffered from the Mexican roads. Our paths crossed at
    other eclipses and conventions. We now have another star
    shining down on us. A fellow eclipse chaser, Derald Nye

  12. Nola Redd

    I enjoyed working with Leif when I interned with S&T back in 2000. He was a great guy, and I enjoyed working with him. My thoughts and prayers are with his family & friends.

  13. Landon Curt Noll

    Leif,

    Please accept my profound thanks for making my Universe a bit more accessible. And many thanks for all of the eclipse expedition memories!

  14. Roy Bishop

    Although I knew and respected the name “Leif Robinson” during my many years as a subscriber to Sky & Telescope, it was exactly 3 years ago today (March 1) that I met Leif. He and I were on the small ship “Corinthian II” for a three-week cruise from Ushuaia to Cape Town, via the Falklands, South Georgia, and Tristan da Cunha. Leif’s favorite spot on the ship was a comfortable chair on the upper deck near the stern, his image-stabilized binoculars in hand as he scanned the wild southern ocean for albatross, prions, petrels, and shearwaters. I felt honored to be sharing those magnificant birds with a great gentleman in that remote part of our planet.

  15. Todd Hansen

    I only met Leif Robinson once. During the joint meeting of the ASP and the ALPO at Pomona College in California in 1987. As a member of the Riverside Astronomical Society I was wearing a t-shirt emblazened with our name and Leif struck up a coversation with me during a lul in activity. I actually had him to my self for half an hour on a patio there and that’s when I discovered what an avid bird watcher he also was when a Red Tailed Hawk flew over head and he commented on it. I found him to be a very friendly and accessable person. A picture taken by a friend of Leif, John Dobson, and myself together at this meeting is one I still have on my wall.

  16. Brian Smith

    My wife Joyce and I met Leif at the 2001 eclipse in Zambia. We later spent several days together in Madagascar, seeking endemic birds. Leif loved nature, and loved to bring nature to people. One night in Madagascar Leif brought out a little telescope and pointed it at the moon. A couple of curious villagers came by and Leif offered them a look. They became very excited at what they saw and ran off. In a few minutes a crowd of villagers – men, women,children – came to see the moon close-up, for the first time in their lives. It was quite a party, and Leif was right in the middle having the time of his life. Over the years we stalked birds in Costa Rica and explored the whale breeding grounds of Baja California with his daughter Kara. All with the same enthusiasm he showed that night in Madagascar. We will miss him dearly.

  17. Geoff Gaherty

    I first met Leif at the WAA/ALPO meeting in San Jose in 1960, which was commemorated by a photograph of us together in the October 1960 S&T. We met again at the RASC/AAVSO/ASP meeting in Toronto in 1999, and shared memories of our many years in astronomy. I will miss Leif!

  18. Dan Cruz

    I’ve just now learned of the passing of Leif Robinson. I’m saddened for all us with this loss. My wife and I met Leif in the 80′s when he led a large group of us to Australia to view Halley’s Comet. Over those weeks I grew quite fond of his boistrous personality and his love of life. It wasn’t the amature star-gazer in me that was impressed (although being with the Editor in Chief of the legendary Sky and Telescope was heady enough), no it was the way he embraced the new experiences and possibilities of Australia. He jumped into the environment with no hesitation! I remember his telling us how he became a “joiner” relatively late in life, and urged us all to join foreys,trips, organizations, groups, causes. It was as if he was sharing a secret of happiness with all of us. That trip generated stories that I tell to this day and yet they can’t capture the essence and impact of the man. I visited him once after the trip there at the Sky and Telescope offices and we went to lunch, but I lost contact over the years. More recently I had tried to contact him but was unsuccessful. We are all a bit poorer for the loss of his vibrant energy and wisdom, but I feel privileged to have known him, shared a pint and more than a few laughs with him. God Bless you, Leif and yes, rest among the stars. Dan and Edna Cruz

  19. John Umana

    We are very sorry to learn that your most able editor in chief, Leif J. Robinson, has passed away. I’m sure they get Sky & Tel. in heaven, so he’ll feel at home.

  20. Celso Montalvo

    I am sad after knowing about the death of Leif Robinson. I anjoyed his words starting each S&T edition as Editor in Chief, and I enjoyed also his section 50 & 25 years for many years. I will always remember him as reading his section my friends and I always pondered how the knowledge changed during the decades passed by, sometimes little things that today we give for granted.

  21. Bob Quackenbush

    As a subscriber since 1954 Sky & Telescpe and Leif have been a part of my life. As with all passings, I am saddened. He enlighteded and encouraged writers and readers. “May light perpetual shine upon him and give him peace.”

  22. Jacques Toraille

    Dear Sky and Telescope,

    I was so saddened by the news of the passing away of Leif J. Robinson. He was editor in chief when I got to know Sky and Telescope, some 20 years ago, at that time the best Astronomy magazine in the world. Maybe still is, but so few pages now, so…

    Reading his editorial, I got to know Leif’s character, and got the feeling he was a very decent, clever, ethical, educated and intelligent man. He definitely was instrumental in my continuous fidelity as a susbcriber to S&T and his last columns, although short, always where among my favorite articles.

    I hope some asteroid will be baptised after his name in his honour (if not done already).

    A great name of amateur astronomy is Leif Robinson. May he be part of the cosmos forever. I feel like I have lost a friend.

    Jacques TORAILLE
    Clermont-Ferrand
    FRANCE

  23. jay ryan

    I am so sad to hear of Leif’s passing. He was a great supporter of my work and an inspiration and enouragement. Is there anyone who didn’t love this guy and his hilarious personality? I had the great fortune of hanging out with him all weekend at the ASP conference in ’97. I especially appreciated his unconventionality and openness to print “offbeat” astronomy articles representing views outside the mainstream. My only regret is not being able to know him better. Godspeed, Leif Robinson, and thank you for your kindness.

  24. Sirius ASK (Astronomical Society of Kermanshah)

    I in behalf of Sirius ASK (Astronomical Society of Kermanshah)
    declare our deep sorrow for losing late Mr Robinson and ask Lord to keep him in His great blessing and peace among the starry heavens.Viva Astronomical friends !
    Dr Mohammad Ali Khodayari
    Kermanshah,Iran

  25. Gail Cole

    I grew up with Lief. His parents introduced my parents to each other in Conn in the 40′s. I remember Leif and his friends in his fathers driveway in CA, with their telescopes set up waiting for dark back in the 50′s.
    My brother Jim is named after Leif’s Dad " Big Jim ", the same as Leif’s middle name. He was a young girl’s idol, handsome, fun but oh so serious about the Sky. His Dad worked with his hands and at that time saw no sense in looking at the stars. Later Big Jim became proud enough to burst about his son. Leif’s passing makes my heart hurt. I know he touched millions of other hearts and minds. I had a star named after my husband years ago, I hope it is next to Leif’s. Good Bye Dear Friend…Gail Stoltman-Cole

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