University of Virginia, College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Professor John Hawley has passed away after a long fight with cancer

December 13, 2021


It is with incredible sadness that we announce the passing of Professor John Hawley after a long fight with cancer. In addition to being a brilliant scientist and dedicated advocate for the Astronomy Department and UVA as a whole, John was a valued mentor and colleague, and his sharp wit will be missed. 


John received his Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign in 1984. After a Bantrell Prize Fellowship in Theoretical Astrophysics at CalTech, he was hired at UVA in the Astronomy Department in 1987. His 15 years of leadership here were comprised of Department Chair for two terms, Associate Dean for the Sciences for two terms, and as AD for Academic Affairs and Senior AD for Academic Affairs these last two years. 


John's primary research interest was the physics of gas accretion. While accretion is ubiquitous in the universe, the physical mechanism that drives it was not well understood. In our daily lives, when water comes out of a tap, it spirals inward and goes down the drain due to friction with the walls of the sink. The equivalent source of friction for accretion was assumed to be turbulence in the gas flow, but the origin of that turbulence was a mystery for almost two decades. In the 1990’s, working with Steven Balbus, John identified a powerful instability in magnetized gases that drives the turbulent flow, allowing a detailed understanding of the accretion process. Today, the “magnetorotational instability” is applied to study a wide variety of celestial objects, from accretion disks around black holes to the disks from which stars and planets form.  


John’s research accomplishments were widely recognized. He was the 1993 recipient of the Helen B. Warner Prize for Astronomy of the American Astronomical Society. He and Steve Balbus shared the 2013 Shaw Prize in Astronomy for their discovery, which included a US $1 million cash award. He was awarded the Hamilton Chair in Astronomy in 2014. 


John also contributed fundamental insights in computational astrophysics. With the recognition that many fluid dynamics processes are too complicated to understand with pencil and paper calculations, he was a leader in developing numerical algorithms to solve for the evolution of magnetized fluids, allowing a detailed study of their behavior. With these computational tools, he and his collaborators were able to study disk accretion of gas, the formation of jets, the efficiency of disks in emitting radiation, as well as the effects of general relativity on the gas flow. As an expert in high-performance computing, he advocated for the Rivanna computer cluster which now serves the large-scale computing needs of many UVA researchers. 


John’s sense of humor was legendary. Whether it was at faculty meetings, or the Kovalenko dinner speeches, or even the Chairs and Director’s meetings for the College, you always knew he could find something funny even in the driest topics and most arcane details. He will be sorely missed. We wish his wife, Katherine Holcomb, and all his family comfort at this challenging time. 


Phil Arras
Astronomy Department Chair

UVA Today Article:

John F. Hawley, Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Arts and Sciences and John Downman Hamilton Professor of Astronomy, died of cancer on December 12, 2021 at his home in Earlysville.  He was 63.  He had a distinguished career as an astrophysicist.  He won the Warner Prize of the American Astronomical Society in 1994.  In 2013 he shared the Shaw Prize in Astronomy with former UVA colleague Steven Balbus for their work on the mechanism underlying gas accretion around black holes.  He was a Fellow of the American Astronomical Society. In 2006 he was appointed chair of the Astronomy Department; in 2012 he moved to the Dean’s office as Associate Dean for the Sciences.   In 2020 he took on his final administrative role as AD for Academic Affairs.  He was a brilliant scientist, an able administrator, and a loving husband, son, brother, and uncle.  His sharp sense of humor was legendary.  He is survived by his wife, Katherine Holcomb, brothers Steve (Eileen) and Jim (Amy), sister Diane (Bernie Robe), nephew Aaron and niece Jamie, and mother Jeanne Hawley.  He was predeceased by his father, Bernard Hawley. In lieu of flowers please send memorial contributions to the CASPCA, Caring for Creatures (Palmyra), The Nature Conservancy, or a similar charity of your choice.