March 1, 2022

Fellowship Honors Caltech Physicist Sinclair Smith

A new endowed fellowship commemorates the life and contributions of Sinclair Smith (BS ʼ21, PhD ʼ24), a Caltech alumnus whose scientific and engineering expertise helped open a new window on the universe. Before his untimely death at 39 years of age, Smith was instrumental in building the drive for the 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory.

The Sinclair Smith Fellowship in Astrophysics is open to any Caltech graduate student, with a preference for those studying at the intersection of astronomy and physics. Smith’s daughter, Anna Hallstrom, and her husband, John Hallstrom (BS ʼ51), established the fellowship in 2021, on the 100th anniversary of Smith’s first graduation from Caltech.

“Sinclair had an illustrious career despite his short lifespan,” John says. “We want generations of Caltech students to follow in his footsteps and make their own exciting discoveries.”

The Hallstroms’ $500,000 gift was part of Break Through: The Caltech Campaign, which raised more than $278 million in fellowship support by the time it concluded on September 30, 2021. The couple amplified their giving with the Gordon (PhD ’54) and Betty Moore Graduate Fellowship Match, which provides two dollars for every dollar pledged.

Keeping a Legacy Alive

Sinclair Smith in 1921 (photo by Witzel L.A., courtesy of Caltech Archives)

Anna was 7 years old at the time of her father’s passing. She cherished the few memories she had of him and clung to the stories her mother, Elizabeth Smith, shared. Before Angeles Crest Highway opened, for example, Elizabeth would brave the narrow and winding toll road from Pasadena to Mount Wilson Observatory to visit her husband as he worked in the physics laboratory there. Anna also came to appreciate her father’s keen interest in tackling challenging projects, from building a sailboat to designing her childhood home.

After spending the rest of her youth in Pasadena, Anna enrolled at Smith College in 1948. Back in Pasadena on a break from school, she met John—then a Caltech undergraduate—through a mutual friend. The couple married in 1969.

Early in their relationship, John learned how prominently her father had figured in Anna’s life. Together, they worked to keep Smith’s legacy alive. John became an amateur Smith historian. He read Smith’s research on dark matter, combed the Caltech Archives for photographs, and studied Smith’s Caltech contemporaries, including Fritz Zwicky. The Hallstroms gave their only child, William, the middle name of Sinclair. They also traveled to places that were meaningful for Smith’s career, including the Mount Wilson and Palomar observatories, and Corning, New York, where the mirror for the Hale Telescope was made.

“She had an aching hole in her heart because he was not there,” John says. “Anna channeled her sorrow into pride for Sinclair and everything he accomplished.”

“I cherish the fact that my father’s contributions continue to advance the field of astronomy. John and I hope future Smith Fellows will embrace his curiosity and fearlessness to dream big.”
- Anna Hallstrom

A Bigger Eye on the Universe

In the late 1920s, Caltech astronomer and cofounder George Ellery Hale decided to build the largest telescope on Earth in order to peer deeper into space than ever before. The Chicago-born Smith joined Hale and other scientists at Caltech to help turn this ambitious idea into reality. Smith was tasked with devising a turning mechanism that would enable the telescope’s 14.5-ton curved mirror to track the nighttime sky. Smith’s work on the mechanism was three-quarters complete when he succumbed to cancer in 1938.

Sinclair Smith (BS ʼ21, PhD ʼ24)

Another decade would pass before Caltech completed the Hale Telescope. Soon after its first light, it provided views of the distant universe with unprecedented clarity. It doubled the known size of the universe, revealed quasars several billion light-years away, detected the first known brown dwarf star, and enabled countless more discoveries. A grand achievement in science and engineering, the Hale Telescope remained the world’s largest optical telescope for 45 years.

“I cherish the fact that my father’s contributions continue to advance the field of astronomy,” Anna says. “John and I hope future Smith Fellows will embrace his curiosity and fearlessness to dream big.”

A Community That Feels Like Family

Staying connected to Caltech is another way the Hallstroms remember Smith. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, they visited campus once a month either to dine at the Athenaeum or to attend an alumni event. They are also members of the Caltech Associates, a dedicated group of supporters formed in 1926.

“There’s a community here that feels like family, where people support and look out for each other,” John says. “Endowing the Smith Fellowship is one way we can help the Caltech family.”