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Remembering Ross Taylor

(November 26, 1925 - May 23, 2021)

— Great Man, Great Scientist

We have lost another great planetary scientist when S. Ross Taylor passed away on May 23, 2021. He was 95 years old and had made the best of those years. It is sad to lose someone important in your life, but those of us lucky enough to have been his friend and to have worked with him realize how lucky we were to have known him.

When I was a young postdoc working on Apollo samples, Ross Taylor was already famous. He had produced valuable data on lunar and terrestrial rocks and was putting terrestrial geochemistry into a broader planetary context. More importantly, he was delighted to share what he knew with youngsters like me. From the first time I met him, when I knew soooo much less than he did, he treated me as an equal. It was as if he liked discussing my ignorance-based, naïve ideas! Ross was a natural teacher who encouraged intellectual exploration while gently guiding the young (or old) explorer away from wacky roads.

Ross was wonderful to work with. Besides being open to new ideas, he liked puzzling things out with collaborators. He listened to his collaborators, actively brainstorming to tackle those puzzles. In contrast to some scientists (names withheld) when discussing an issue, with Ross you never heard or implied, "I'm right, you're wrong...and by the way, you're dumb, too." One of the greatest pleasures of my now long career was working on our Moon composition paper with Ross and Larry Taylor. It was stimulating and fun, especially when S. Ross Taylor and G. Jeffrey Taylor convinced Lawrence A. Taylor to be listed as L. August Taylor in the author list. Larry got into the spirit by enhancing the acknowledgements by adding a thank you to our other clansman, J. Daniels Taylor, writing, "As all good Taylor men are accustomed, we have listened to our Tennessee kin, J. Daniels Taylor, who has provided the initiative to pull the clan together..." (For readers less familiar with the world of bourbon, J. Daniels refers to Jack Daniels, a famous Tennessee distillery. Its founder Jack Daniels' last name was not Taylor.)

And then there are the books. Ross wrote clearly. His prose is straightforward yet elegant. His books (and many papers, too) are grand syntheses of big stories such as the compositions of the terrestrial crust, other planetary crusts, whole planets, and in fact, whole solar systems. Big ideas mattered to Ross, as did explaining them. One way he achieved great clarity in his writing was his ability to not worry too much about the trees when trying to understand the forest. Ross had an inherent understanding of how to decide which trees or clump of trees are only distractions to our enjoyment of the forest. One of the best compliments anyone ever gave me was Chuck Wood in a review of my children's science book Volcanoes in the Solar System in which Chuck called me "the Ross Taylor of the junior set." There cannot be higher praise for a science writer.

Those books. Starting with The Moon–A Post-Apollo View in 1975, Ross produced a series of broadly expanding books about planetary geochemistry. As Marc Norman (Australian National University, ANU) pointed out at Ross' 90th birthday celebration at ANU, Ross does not write second editions or mere updates. The books evolve: The Moon–A Post-Apollo View morphed into PlanetaryScience: A Lunar Perspective (1982), which evolved further to Solar System Evolution, A New Perspective (1992). The Continental Crust: Its Composition and Evolution (1985, with Scott McLennan, Stony Brook University) expanded to Planetary Crusts, Their Composition, Origin and Evolution (2009, again with Scott McLennan). Destiny or Chance: Our Solar System and Its Place in the Cosmos (1998) was followed by Destiny or Chance Revisited (2012). These books show how Ross' thinking evolved with new data and new concepts from a wide range of fields, including the study of planets around other stars, and shows a major, inspirational fact about Ross Taylor: He never stopped thinking.

In other words, Ross Taylor was smart, a great thinker and teacher, a wonderful man. No wonder we all loved him, loved hanging out with him and his wonderful wife Noël, loved reading his books, and are sad that he left us.

 Left to right: G. Jeffrey Taylor, S. Ross Taylor, L. August Taylor.
Taylors Cubed at Ross' ninetieth birthday celebration at the Research School of Earth Sciences at Australian National University in Canberra. [Left to right] G. Jeffrey Taylor, S. Ross Taylor, and L. August Taylor. This article is a based on remarks I gave at this birthday celebration. Also see the memorial to Ross Taylor posted by the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston.

  — G. Jeffrey Taylor

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