James Westphal combined a background in engineering with work in astronomy.
Westphal began work as a field geophysicist in the oil industry in the United States and Mexico. Since moving to academia, his scientific interests have ranged from the nature of acoustic transmission in glacial ice, to the dynamics of water flow in marine invertebrates, to the mechanical deformation studies of volcanoes, leading to the designing of geological and astronomical tools and instruments. He built several instruments and a camera for the Hale telescope, was also involved in designing, testing, and using the main camera for the Hubble Space Telescope, and designed a tiny camera that was inserted into the Old Faithful geyser.
Westphal was a professor emeritus of planetary sciences and the former director of the Palomar Observatory at the California Institute of Technology. He joined the staff of the Institute as a senior engineer in 1961, was named an associate professor of planetary science in 1971, and became a professor in 1976. Prior to his positions at Caltech, he served as a geophysical research group leader at Sinclair Research Lab in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A member of the American Astronomical Society, he holds numerous patents in the U.S., Canada, and France.
Westphal received a B.S. (1954) from the University of Tulsa.