Obituary: Professor Martin Schwarzschild

By Mestel, Leon | The Independent (London, England), April 19, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: Professor Martin Schwarzschild

Mestel, Leon, The Independent (London, England)

Martin Schwarzschild, eminent theoretical and observational astronomer, was a world leader in the theory of stellar structure and evolution and of galactic structure.

Besides writing other important papers on theoretical and observational astronomy, he pioneered the use of space telescopes to obtain sharp photographs from above the Earth's fluctuating atmosphere. His versatility, transparent personal integrity, enthusiasm for ideas and skill in communication made him a very effective advisor on scientific matters, both national and international. He was a worthy son to Karl Schwarzschild, a father he hardly remembered.

Schwarzschild's early life in some ways typified that of many other German citizens of Jewish stock. His father's family had for centuries lived in the Frankfurt Judengasse. Following emancipation in the 19th century, they entered with enthusiasm into Germany's economic, intellectual and cultural life.

Karl Schwarzschild was a man of genius, who can fairly be described as the father of astrophysics: in just 20-odd years of active research, he introduced many fundamental ideas and methods now commonplace among astronomers. But come 1914, although past 40, and in spite of his distaste for militarism, as a German Jew he felt morally obliged to volunteer, following the German army first into Belgium with a scientific unit, and subsequently onto the Eastern Front. In 1916 he contracted a painful skin disease which killed him, but not before he had written his last scientific papers, including one on ballistics, and the two that are probably his most famous, constructing exact solutions of Einstein's general relativistic field equations.

The young Martin's faint recollections of his father, and the high regard with which his memory was held both in his childhood home at Gottingen and in the astronomical world must have acted as an inspiration rather than an impediment. But his graduation in physics and astronomy coincided with the political triumph of the Nazis, for whom his father's patriotism counted for little. Both Martin Schwarzschild and his elder sister Agathe (subsequently Professor of Classics at Dunedin in New Zealand) were forced into exile. His younger brother, who remained with their "Aryan" mother in Gottingen, was ultimately driven to suicide.

After a year as Research Fellow at Oslo and a brief visit to Britain, Schwarzschild emigrated to the United States in 1937, becoming a citizen in 1942, and serving as a lieutenant with army intelligence. After the war he returned at first to his position as Assistant Professor at Columbia University's Rutherford Observatory. It showed commendable farsightedness on the part of Princeton that when appointing Lyman Spitzer as Professor of Astronomy and successor to H.N. Russell as Director of the Observatory, they agreed to Spitzer's request that Schwarzschild also be appointed. Their fields of work both overlapped and complemented each other; together, they built up a strong graduate school in theoretical and observational astronomy.

Schwarzschild is probably best known for his seminal contributions to our understanding of stellar structure and evolution. He was quick to recognise the power of the newly developed electronic computers to deal with the rather intractable mathematics, and in particular to incorporate the complicated details of the input physics. The culmination of a long series of studies was a landmark paper written jointly with Fred Hoyle, "On the Evolution of Type 2 Stars", published in 1955, which showed convincingly how the evolution due to nuclear processing of initially homogeneous stars would lead naturally to the red giant sequence and the associated short- period pulsating stars, as observed in the globular clusters.

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