Robert H. Eather

2006 Athelstan Spilhaus Award Winner

Robert H. Eather received the Athelstan Spilhaus Award at the Joint Assembly Honors Ceremony, which was held on 25 May 2006 in Baltimore, Md. The award honors individuals who have devoted portions of their lives to expressing the excitement, significance, and beauty of the Earth and space sciences to the general public.


The selection criterion for AGU’s Athelstan Spilhaus Award-“members of the American Geophysical Union who have devoted portions of their lives to expressing the excitement, significance, and beauty of the Earth and space sciences to the general public”-epitomizes Robert (Bob) Eather’s career-long achievements in rendering the science and phenomena of the geospace environment visually accessible and exciting to the public. It is, therefore, especially fitting that Bob Eather has been selected as the first recipient of the Athelstan Spilhaus Award for Enhancement of the Public Understanding of Earth and Space Science.

An exceptionally talented person, Eather has dedicated a significant portion of his life as an experimental researcher to designing and building one-of-a-kind instruments-including a faint-light, IMAX color camera-to capture the real-time motions of the aurora borealis and the aurora australis. His achievement here is unique since auroral forms are faint, colorful, and fast moving.

He has repeatedly wintered in the Arctic and Antarctic habitats of the polar lights to film their shapes and behavior. With his films, articles, and many popular lectures, he has displayed their beauty and described their mystery. An early example is the 1972 film Spirits of the Polar Night, which aired on PBS and commercial networks and won a number of prizes at international film festivals. Later came the IMAX movie SolarMax, which tells the space weather story in grand cinema format. SolarMax premiered in London in 2000 and has since played at IMAX theaters worldwide. Eather’s magnificent 1981 book, Majestic Lights-The Aurora in Science, History and the Arts, is arguably the best semipopular account ever written on auroras and the history of humankind’s involvement with them.

Not evident in this short list of Eather created media products on geospace is an eminently award-worthy aspect: extraordinary dedication, energy, and passion for the subject needed to bring these projects not just to fruition but also to prize-quality excellence.

To illustrate: The margins of the pages of Majestic Lights are peopled with 132 illustrations of people whose involvement with auroral history the book describes, the more obscure of which Eather wrote to libraries, museums, and family members around the world to obtain.

The compulsion for perfection that this signifies raised his book from the merely commendable to a work of art. Eather’s experiences filming SolarMax have the flavor of Shackleton’s Endurance-a hazardous predawn ride on Lake Titicaca in a Peruvian version of the African Queen to film sunrise over the birthplace of the Sun in Incan mythology and four weeks sitting on the edge of a fjord in northern Norway waiting for a 24-hour cloudless interval to film the daily excursion of the Sun at summer solstice. By the end of the project, Eather had carted his IMAX camera to 12 different countries for filming sequences. The impact it has had in conveying the excitement of Sun-Earth connections to the general public can be judged by the estimate that between three million and 10 million people have seen it in IMAX theaters.

It is well that the first Spilhaus Award should go to Robert Eather. It sets a high mark at the head of the future list of awardees.

—ROBERT CAROVILLANO and GEORGE SISCOE, Boston College (ret.), Boston, Mass.; Boston University, Boston, Mass.


Thank you, Bob Carovillano and George Siscoe, for my exaggerated citation, and to Stephen Mende, Rich Benke, Fred Rees and Pat Reiff for supporting my nomination.

My dedication to geospace and, in particular, all things auroral, comes from three directions: (1) my genuine awe and fascination with the sheer beauty of the aurora; (2) the considerable technical challenge of trying to capture the aurora on film with sufficient quality to do it justice; and (3) a strong desire to show the aurora to the 98% of the world’s population who will never get a chance to see it. And if I could also explain, in a simple way, how it all comes about, then so much the better.

I started this quest in 1963 at the Australian base at Mawson, Antarctica. For publicity purposes, Volkswagen Australia had given us a VW to take to Antarctica. I stole a hubcap, pointed a homemade time-lapse camera into it to create an all-sky view, and took 10-second exposures using the fastest film available. The result was a jerky and grainy rendition of the ephemeral and intricately resolved display seen by the dark-adapted human eye-I had a long way to go.

The resulting journey of studying the physics of the aurora, developing new techniques to capture it on film, and finally presenting it in a public forum, has been intriguing and very satisfying. Athelstan Spilhaus once said that his life could be summed up in one sentence: “Work and play should be indistinguishable.” I wholeheartedly concur, and count myself lucky that, with him, I have also lived that aphorism.

Halfway though this 43-year journey, AGU published my book Majestic Lights. It took another 15 years to build my own IMAX camera and capture the aurora in that most spectacular and realistic of all film formats. SolarMax presented the story of the Sun and man’s relationship to it, and included some of the story of the aurora.

IMAX is a powerful medium for the public understanding of science. The film has grossed over $15 million and been seen by some three million viewers in IMAX theaters in 18 countries, having been translated into Japanese, French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, Swedish, Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Arabic. In addition, it is now regularly shown on high-definition television, where it has been seen in 25 additional countries and translated into 11 more languages: Russian, Flemish, Greek, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Portuguese, Turkish, Hebrew, Polish, Indonesian, and Bulgarian; television viewers are estimated at 30 million. A shorter re-edited digital version called Heart of the Sun has recently begun screening in planetariums around the world.

I recently retired or, as I prefer to say, entered my declining years, meaning that from now on I can decline to do anything I don’t want to do. What I do want to do is complete my dream and make one more IMAX film, just about the aurora-the history, folklore and legends, and the development of scientific understanding. It is a fascinating story, and all I need to tell it is $3-4 million. That, by the way, is about half the average current cost of a two-dimensional IMAX film.

I have some unique advantages: I own my own IMAX camera; unretired colleagues continue to help me massage satellite data into beautiful high-resolution images for the IMAX screen; and I know my topic backward: what I want to film, where to film it, and how to do it economically. It is a retirement project; I am in no hurry, but I do need to find sponsors.

Receiving this award from AGU can only help in the quest for sponsors, so I am delighted, humbled, and very honored to be the first recipient of the Athelstan Spilhaus Award. To use an Australian expression, I am really chuffed! Thank you.

—ROBERT H. EATHER, Keo Consultants, Brookline, Mass.