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Interview with Maarten Schmidt

Schmidt, Maarten (1999) Interview with Maarten Schmidt. [Oral History]

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An interview in three sessions in April and May of 1996 with Maarten Schmidt, Francis L. Moseley Professor of Astronomy, emeritus, in the Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy. He recalls growing up in Groningen, Holland, during German occupation in World War II; his early education and friendship with Jan Borgman, with whom he built a telescope; photographing the solar eclipse of July 9, 1945. Matriculation at Groningen University in 1946. At an astronomy conference in 1949, Jan Oort asks him to become an assistant at Leiden Observatory. Graduate study at Leiden, where he works with Oort on the brightness of comets. Recalls his time in Kenya, August 1950 to December 1951, making measurements of declination on the equator with G. van Herk. Comments on 1951 discovery of 21-centimeter line and his radio observations of galactic structure with Oort and Henk van de Hulst. PhD from Leiden in 1956; thesis on the distribution of mass in Milky Way galaxy. Comes to Mount Wilson Observatory on a two-year Carnegie Fellowship. Returns to Leiden in 1958; back to Pasadena a year later, as an associate professor at Caltech, where he works in early 1960s on exchange between stars and galactic gas, and on size, mass distribution and rotation of Milky Way galaxy. At Palomar in early 1960s--working with radio astronomer Tom Matthews, who was at Owens Valley--he takes spectra of optical objects identified with radio sources, which leads to the discovery of quasars. Recalls quasar work and contributions of Jesse Greenstein, John Bolton, J. Beverly Oke, Allan Sandage, Cyril Hazard, and later Richard Green, James Gunn, and Donald Schneider. Recalls early arguments by Halton Arp, Fred Hoyle, Geoffrey Burbidge that quasars were not cosmological objects. Recalls use of CCDs in 1980s-1990s and the discovery in 1993 of a quasar with a redshift of 4.9, largest redshift on record. Comments on his work in X-ray astronomy and gamma-ray astronomy, with ROSAT [Röntgen X-ray Satellite] and the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory [GRO]. Recalls his graduate students, among them Nobel laureate Robert W. Wilson (co-discoverer of cosmic microwave background). Discusses his administrative career at Caltech, 1972-1980: three years as executive officer for astronomy, three years as PMA division chairman, two years as director of the Hale Observatories. Comments on the concurrent deterioration of relations between Caltech and the Carnegie Institution. Recalls his presidency of the American Astronomical Society, 1984-1986, and his work on behalf of VLBA [Very Large Baseline Array] of radio telescopes and National Science Foundation's astronomy budget. Concludes with a discussion of his chairmanship of AURA [Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy] board, 1992-1995.

Item Type:Oral History
Record Number:CaltechOH:OH_Schmidt_M
Persistent URL:
Official Citation:Schmidt, Maarten. Interview by Shirley K. Cohen. Pasadena, California, April 11, May 2 and 15, 1996. Oral History Project, California Institute of Technology Archives. Retrieved [supply date of retrieval] from the World Wide Web:
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
Subjects:All Records
Subjects > Astronomy
ID Code:118
Deposited By: Oral Histories Administrator
Deposited On:22 Mar 2006
Last Modified:04 Oct 2019 15:23

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