Sir Issac Newton
Harlow Shapley was born on November 2, 1885, in Nashville, Missouri. Astronomy became his profession almost by accident. He had intended to go into journalism but was able to use his writing skills throughout his life as an astronomer. He attended the University of Missouri and later Princeton while Henry Russell, of Hertzsprung/Russell fame, was the head of its astronomy department.
When he arrived at Princeton new work was starting on a new approach to analyzing the light curves of eclipsing variables. They were trying to find out the make-up of constituent stars. Shapley became a research student to Russell and was able to provide "energy in applications" that helped the new methods be finished. He wrote his PhD thesis in 1914 on the orbits of 90 eclipsing binaries that effectively created a new branch of astronomy dealing with double stars.
After receiving his PhD he went on staff of the Mount Wilson Observatory in California. He had previously been interested in eclipsing variables but turned from this to studying globular star clusters. During research into globular star clusters he was part of one of the greatest discoveries of astronomy in recent history. He discovered the dimensions of our Galaxy, and of the location of its centre.
Scientists had long known that these clusters were very asymmetric and contain a large number of cepheid variables. Now Shapley began to study these clusters in earnest. His research found that the center of the Milky Way galaxy was located just over 50,000 light years from us toward the constellation of Sagittarius. This was far larger than was believed at the time. When he announced this as the center of our galaxy it was a bold move and our understanding and view of our galaxy began to be clarified as his work was verified. His work showed our galaxy to be a stellar system, ten times larger than previously estimated with our Sun located some 15 thousand parsecs from its center. Later this distance was modified downward to 9 thousand parsecs.
In 1920 he became director of the Harvard College Observatory and remained there for the remainder of his academic career. He was able to see that the equipment at the observatory was modernized. Possibly Shapley's greatest contribution to ongoing work in astronomy was that he established the graduate school of astronomy of Harvard University. The graduates of this school are some of the most well known astronomers of today.
Being involved with the administrative work limited his involvement with actual research but he remained involved in the study of Magellanic clouds and in 1938 discovered new dwarf galaxies in the Fornax and Sculptor constellations.
Dr. Shapley passed away on October 20, 1972. His research expanded the universe and his influence continues today in the lives of many astronomers who went to the graduate school he established.
©Copyright 1998 Elizabeth
Beckett, Holly Bernitt, and Vishwa Chandra.