Remembering Alan D. Rigby 1969-2024

On January 2, 2024 Alan David Rigby of West Valley City, Utah, passed away unexpectedly at the young age of 54. He was born on January 22, 1969 and spent his childhood in Taylorsville, Utah. After graduating from Taylorsville High School in 1987, Alan attended the University of Utah to study Environmental Earth Sciences. In the late 80s, Alan began working in the Department of Geology and Geophysics as an undergraduate, helping Thure Cerling study cosmogenic dating of the Lava Falls debris flow in the Grand Canyon. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1995, he continued his career at the U and helped to build and manage the Noble Gas Lab, which he did for many years. He was the best tour guide for visiting groups and was surrounded by the most intelligent and dedicated people. He thoroughly enjoyed his time there and created friendships that he treasured.

Here below, colleagues Thure Cerling and Kip Solomon reflect on their time with Alan.


By Thure Cerling

Alan began working in my laboratory as an undergraduate in the early 1990s; I needed someone to work on mineral separates for cosmogenic dating, a technique recently developed for dating Quaternary events. Always willing, always enthusiastic, I found Alan an ideal person for the sometimes tedious, but critical, job of obtaining pure olivine or pyroxene separates for 3He analysis.

In 1994, while Alan as still an undergraduate I had the opportunity to meet a US Geological Survey Grand Canyon rafting trip at Lava Falls.  Alan was an obvious choice for my companion on the trip. The scientific question was whether we could date the debris flows that resulted in this famous river rapids – one of the best known in the world.  Research trips in the Grand Canyon are generally in the winter months, and indeed our trip was in late February.

Our plan was to fly to St George, rent a car, then drive to Vulcan’s Throne on the northern rim of the canyon, and then hike down to the river, a drop of about 800 meters over a very short distance – about 1000 meters on the map.  We left Salt Lake City in a dual propeller plane, and climbed to our cruising altitude. “Alan”, I said, “isn’t that propeller slowing down?”.  Indeed, it slowed until barely turning, and we turned back to Salt Lake on the single right engine.  So we got my 4-Runner, grabbed two sandwiches from Crown Burger, and drove the six or so hours to Vulcan’s Throne, reaching the campsite on the canyon rim about 10 at night.  A cold night’s camping, a quick breakfast, and then a hike down the scree slope of volcanic cinder.  The trail switch-backed down the slope and each of us would send a cascade of cinders and gravel down the slope in front of us.  The lead person would find a safe refuge, at the edge or behind an exceptionally large boulder, while the following person made his way down, sending a skitter of gravel down towards the bottom.

Safely at the bottom, the USGS group had already arrived and sent raft across the river to fetch us.  We spent a few days at Lava Falls, collected sufficient samples for dating which fortunately could be put on the USGS rafts and taken downstream. But someone had to fetch the car at the top of the Canyon and that was Alan.  With Ted Melis, Alan and I hiked up the Vulcan’s throne trail where he could fetch the car and drive back to Salt Lake City; then Ted and I hiked back down to the river.  We were able to date the debris flows; the debris forming Lava Falls is about 3000 years old, and initially dammed the river to a depth of at least 22 meters, some 2 times greater than the drop today.

Alan came along on several other of those trips, always willing to make the long hike in and retrieve the car at the top.  Such a cheerful camper, willing worker in the lab and in the field.

In the later 1990s Kip Solomon and I were funded by NSF to purchase a noble gas mass spectrometer and set up a noble gas lab – Kip to work on the tritium-3He dating method for groundwater and me to work on cosmogenic isotopes.  We had to visit the MAP mass spectrometer lab near Manchester and Alan accompanied me to UK to discuss logistics with Mike Lynch, the MAP designer as these mass spectrometers were made individually.  Airfares were considerably less if we stayed over a Saturday night and so Alan and I arrived in Manchester early on a Saturday on a bleak November day.  What to do for the weekend – I suggested Hadrian’s Wall and so off we went in a rented car.  We explored Hadrians’ Wall for the day, hiking along the base, exploring Roman ruins, and thinking how miserable to be a Roman soldier uprooted from Italy and banished to the Scottish lowlands to protest a stupid wall in the middle of nowhere.  Wanting a good and early night’s sleep, we found a cosy English Inn in Haltwhistle at about 4 pm just as the sun was setting.  The expansive bar with low ceilings was empty except for the proprietor who assured us that he had plenty of room for us that evening — after all, it was November and the very very low part of the tourist season.  We checked the rooms, which were just above the bar, and they looked cosy and warm with a fireplace.  So we were just about to sign up when we noticed a newcomer in the bar —  all dressed in white with spangles and cowboy boots and an electric guitar.  “What’s that?”, we asked.  “We are having an Elvis Presley look-alike contest tonight — with music and you are welcome!”  Badly needing sleep, we declined!

After returning to Salt Lake, having decided to go with the MAP mass spectrometer, Alan became part of our team to set up the extraction lines and then the MAP when it eventually arrived in Salt Lake City.  He was a key part of the laboratory, running samples for the tritium-3He dating of groundwater, carefully monitoring the 1600 °C furnace for melting minerals and extracting cosmogenic gases for dating.

In all, Alan worked in our department for some 30 years. He was devoted to the department and was a key part of the day-to-day workings for many of us.

In one sentence: if you are on an airplane when one of the engine fails, you would be hard pressed to find a better seat mate than Alan Rigby!


By Kip Solomon

I first met Alan shortly after I returned to the University of Utah in 1993 as faculty member.  Alan and I immediately had common ground as we had both been undergraduates at the U and both had worked for Thure Cerling and Frank Brown.

When Thure and I received an NSF grant to build a noble gas system, Alan was the obvious choice to help build the extraction lines and operate the mass spectrometer.  Alan’s mechanical skills were evident as he bolted together and made leak tight more than 60 valves, hundreds of fittings, a 10 ˚K cold head, and associated high vacuum pumps.  When we were developing the helium ingrowth method for tritium analyses and needed an inexpensive metal container to store water under high vacuum for several months, Alan had a great idea.  Why not use copper floats used in toilet tanks?  These proved to be cheap, leak tight, and became known as the toilet tritium method!

Alan’s skills were utilized both in the lab and field.  When the Nature Conservancy asked us to investigate the source of water for the Matheson Wetland Preserve (near Moab Utah), Alan helped develop a system for installing wells using a portable jack hammer.  The wells he installed formed the basis for a graduate student thesis, field course for geological engineers, and most recently a cooperative project with the U.S. Geological Survey that redefined the water resources of the Moab Spanish Valley.

Alan became so well known to the local Swagelok dealer (Salt Lake Valve and Fitting) that they made several attempts at hiring him away from the University.  To my great fortune, and the University’s, Alan stayed at the University for his entire career.

In addition to his extraordinary technical skills, Alan was a people person who enjoyed interacting with clients of the noble gas lab, students, faculty, and staff.  His pleasant demeanor and patience became a huge asset to the lab as he interfaced with researchers and consultants who all wanted their samples run NOW!  Somehow, Alan was able to calm the crowds and answer their questions over and over regarding the specialized sample collections methods.

While I don’t recall ever seeing Alan angry, his love and empathy for his family and friends was clear as their problems became his problems.  Family was always Alan’s top priority as he worked through many challenges including the early passing of his father and health issues with his young children.  The well-being of his family was always on his mind and the topic of many lunchtime conversations over the years.  He has been an absolute staple in the Department for more than 30 years.