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Home SCIENCE Maarten Schmidt, first astronomer to identify a quasar, dies at 92

Maarten Schmidt, first astronomer to identify a quasar, dies at 92

Maarten Schmidt, who in 1963 became the first astronomer to identify a quasar, a small, intensely bright object several billion light-years away, and in the process changed standard descriptions of the universe and revolutionized ideas about its evolution, died September 17 at his home in Fresno , Calif. hello what 92

His daughter Anne Schmidt confirmed the death.

dr Schmidt’s discovery of what was then one of the most distant objects in the universe answered one of the great puzzles of postwar astronomy and, like all great advances, opened the door to a whole host of new questions.

Advances in radio technology during World War II allowed scientists in the 1950s to probe deeper into the universe than they could with traditional optical telescopes. But in doing so, they picked up radio signals from a plethora of faint or even invisible, but intensely energetic objects that didn’t fit into any conventional category of celestial body.

The researchers called them “quasi-stellar radio sources” or quasars for short, although no one could figure out what a quasar was. Many thought they were small, dense stars nearby, within the Milky Way.

In 1962, two scientists in Australia, Cyril Hazard and John Bolton, finally succeeded in identifying the precise position of one of these, named 3C 273. They shared the data with various researchers, including Dr. Schmidt, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology.

Using the massive 200-inch telescope at Palomar Observatory in rural San Diego County, Dr. Schmidt was able to honor what appeared to be a faint blue star. He then plotted its light signature on a graph, showing where its constituent elements appeared in the spectrum, from ultraviolet to infrared.

What he found was, at first, puzzling. The signatures, or spectral lines, did not resemble those of any known element. He watched the charts for weeks, pacing his living room floor, until he realized: All the expected elements were there, but they had shifted toward the red end of the spectrum, an indication that the object was moving away from the Earth and quickly. .

And once he knew the speed, 30,000 miles per second, Dr. Schmidt was able to calculate the object’s distance. His jaw dropped. At about 2.4 billion light-years away, 3C 273 was one of the most distant objects in the universe from Earth. That distance meant it was also incredibly luminous: if it were placed in the position of Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Earth, it would outshine the sun.

dr Schmidt shared his results with his colleagues, and then in an article in the journal Nature, and not without fear, knowing how disruptive his findings would be.

“At that time it was simply a matter of knowing that nature forced you to say something,” he said in a tone Interview for the American Institute of Physics in 1975. “You couldn’t keep quiet and you had to say something and make it good because it was clear that it was an occasion.”

The revelation shocked the world of astronomy, and for a time made Dr. Schmidt something of a celebrity. Time magazine put him on its cover in 1966, with a sycophantic profile comparing him to Galileo.

“The Italian of the seventeenth century initiated scientists and theologians alike; 20th-century Dutchman has had an equally jarring effect on his own contemporaries,” Time wrote, a little breathlessly but not inaccurately.

The question remained: if these objects were not stars, what were they? Theories proliferated. Some said it was the fading embers of a giant supernova. dr Schmidt and others believed, instead, that in a quasar, astronomers could see the birth of an entire galaxy, with a black hole in the center that gathered astral gases that, in their friction, generated enormous amounts of energy, an argument developed by Donald Lynden-Bell, a physicist at the University of Cambridge, in 1969.

If that was true, and if quasars really were several billion light-years away, it meant they were portraits of the universe in its relative infancy, only a few billion years old. In some cases, their light originated long before Earth’s solar system formed and offered clues to the evolution of the universe.

Maarten Schmidt was born on December 1. January 28, 1929 in Groningen, the Netherlands. His father, Wilhelm, was an accountant for the Dutch government; his mother, Annie Wilhelmina (Haringhuizen) Schmidt, was a homemaker.

Maarten built his first telescope under the tutelage of his uncle, a pharmacist and amateur astronomer, using two lenses and a roll of toilet paper. Although his family lived in the center of Groningen, the demands of World War II often meant a complete blackout of the city, allowing him a clear view of the skies.

He read all the astronomy he could find and proved so adept that a high school teacher allowed him to lead the class. He studied mathematics and physics at the University of Groningen, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1949 and a master’s degree a year later.

He then traveled to the University of Leiden, south of Amsterdam, where he studied with the renowned Dutch astronomer Jan Oort, known, among other things, for his theory about a layer of icy objects just beyond the solar system, now called the Oort Cloud. . .

dr Oort liked to throw parties, and at one, Mr. Schmidt met Cornelia Tom. They married in 1955. He died in 2020.

Along with his daughter Anne, he is survived by his daughters Elizabeth Evans and Marijke Schmidt, four grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.

dr Schmidt received his doctorate from him in 1956 and spent two years in the United States on a Carnegie fellowship. He and his young family returned to Leiden, but he was dissatisfied with the resources and opportunities available to him, and in 1959 he accepted a permanent position at Caltech in Pasadena.

He spent most of his later career hunting for quasars and discovering new insights about them, a quest interrupted by several years as an administrator, heading Caltech’s Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy, and directing the school’s Hale Observatories.

dr Schmidt was an adamant atheist, but when asked by the editors of Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists (1990) how, if he were God, he would have designed the universe, he gladly accepted the challenge.

“I would have built a bigger universe,” he said. “I think the universe is small.”

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