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Babcock, Harold Delos (24 January 1882–08 April 1968), physicist and astrophysicist, was born in Edgerton, Wisconsin, the son of Emilus Welcome Babcock, a general store owner and farmer, and Mary Eliza Brown. Babcock’s rural isolation and his frail health (exacerbated by an early attack of rheumatic fever) may have impelled his pursuit of intellectual activities. As a youth, he became interested in science and engineering, and particularly in electricity and photography. In 1896 his family moved to Los Angeles, California, and in 1901 he matriculated at the University of California, Berkeley, in the College of Electrical Engineering. While at Berkeley, Babcock specialized in laboratory physics and concentrated on electricity and spectroscopy (the production and investigation of the spectra of luminous bodies). He completed his studies in 1906 and received a B.S. in absentia the following year. In 1907 Babcock married Mary G. Henderson; they had one son, Horace Welcome, who later became an astronomer and director of the Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories....

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Bowen, Ira Sprague (21 December 1898–06 February 1973), astrophysicist and first director of the combined Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories, was born in Seneca Falls, New York, the son of James H. Bowen, a Methodist minister, and Philinda Sprague, who became a teacher after her husband’s death. Bowen (always known as “Ike” to his friends) attended the high school and three years of the junior college that formed part of the Houghton Wesleyan Methodist Seminary, at which his mother taught. He was an excellent student. His teacher in physics, mathematics, and astronomy, J. S. Luckey, the president of the college, helped him transfer to Oberlin College for his senior year. Bowen received his A.B. at Oberlin in 1919 and entered the University of Chicago as a graduate student in physics. In two years he took all the graduate courses taught by ...

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Chandrasekhar, Subrahmanyan (19 October 1910–21 August 1995), astrophysicist, was born in Lahore, India, the son of Chandrasekhara Subrahmanya, Ayyar, a civil servant, and Sitalakshmi Balakrishna. Following Hindu tradition as the firstborn son, he took the name of his paternal grandfather; however, he is best known as simply Chandra. The family was highly educated; his father rose to a high position in the Indian railways and was a noted musicologist specializing in the Karnatic music of southern India. His uncle Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, a physicist, discovered the Raman effect in light scattering and received the 1930 Nobel Prize in physics. Chandra showed a marked aptitude for mathematics and at the age of fifteen entered Presidency College of the University of Madras. There, at the insistence of his father, he pursued an honors degree program in physics and graduated at the top of his class with a B.A. (subsequently awarded an M.A.) in 1930. His outstanding record earned him a Government of Madras Research Scholarship to enable him to study at Trinity College in Cambridge, England. He received his doctorate in 1933 following his studies in Cambridge, which included a year spent at Niels Bohr’s Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen (1932–1933). His dissertation on stellar structure, “Polytropic Distributions,” was supervised by Ralph H. Fowler. In 1936 Chandra married Lalitha Doraiswarmy in Tiruchanur, India. They had met while they were both students at Presidency College, and she was a physicist employed in the Bangalore Laboratory of his uncle Sir Chandrasekhara Raman. They had no children....

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Goldberg, Leo (26 January 1913–01 November 1987), astronomer and astrophysicist, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Polish immigrants Harry Goldberg and Ruth Ambush. When he was nine a fire destroyed the tenement where his family lived, taking the lives of his mother and younger brother. Three years later his father moved the remaining family to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Young Goldberg spent his summers on Nantucket Bay, where his frequent visits to the Maria Mitchell Observatory probably sparked his interest in astronomy. Financial support from a local businessman in 1930 allowed Goldberg to attend college. He completed both his undergraduate and graduate work at Harvard University under the supervision of ...

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George E. Hale. Drawing by Robert Kastor, 1909. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-104089).

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Hale, George Ellery (29 June 1868–21 February 1938), astrophysicist, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of William Ellery Hale, a paper salesman, and Mary Scranton Browne. As a young boy, Hale was fascinated by tools and optics. By the time he was fourteen, he had built a workshop/laboratory that included a steam-driven lathe, a microscope with a camera for photographing slide specimens, and a telescope; the steam engine and telescope he made by himself. Having developed a great interest in astronomy while still in high school, he mounted a refracting telescope on the roof of his house to observe and take photographs of solar phenomena such as partial eclipses and sunspots....

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Joy, Alfred Harrison (23 September 1882–18 April 1973), astrophysicist, was born in Greenville, Illinois, the son of Frank Joy and Louise Maynard. He received a degree in Latin and science from Greenville College, a small Methodist institution, in 1903 and continued his studies in science at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he obtained an M.A. in physics in 1904. At Oberlin, Joy worked under ...

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Samuel Pierpont Langley. 1903. Right, with Charles M. Manly on the houseboat which served to launch Langley's Aerodrome. Courtesy of NASA (LaRCL-1990-04340/GPN-2000-001298).

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Langley, Samuel Pierpont (22 August 1834–27 February 1906), astrophysicist and aviation experimenter, was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, the son of Samuel Langley, a wholesale merchant and banker, and Mary Sumner Williams. Langley attended the Boston Latin School and graduated from the Boston High School in 1851. He spent the years 1851–1857 preparing for a career in civil engineering and architecture and worked as a draftsman and merchant in Chicago and St. Louis from 1857 to 1864....

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Menzel, Donald Howard (11 April 1901–14 December 1976), astrophysicist, was born in Florence, Colorado, the son of Charles Menzel, railway employee and businessman, and Ina Zint. Raised in the mining town of Leadville, Colorado, Menzel was encouraged to study science by his surroundings, his parents, and the writings of Jonathan Swift and Jules Verne. From about the age of six, he collected minerals, both for sale to passing tourists and for himself. His father taught him Morse code, and he soon built his own wireless transmitter and receiver, beginning a lifelong interest in amateur radio. With his mother’s encouragement, Menzel also took up chemistry, establishing a laboratory in the barn and, eventually, setting up an office for analyzing ores at cut-rate prices....

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Merrill, Paul Willard (15 August 1887–19 July 1961), astrophysicist, was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the son of Charles Wilbur Merrill, a Congregational minister, and Kate Amelia Kreis. Merrill’s family moved a number of times during his youth but by 1900 had settled in Saratoga, California. Merrill attended Stanford University and obtained an A.B. in mathematics in 1908. He did some surveying work in Iowa during the summer of 1907, and this experience helped him obtain a position with the U.S. Geological Survey as a field assistant in California in July 1908. By December of that year, however, he began pursuing an earlier interest in astronomy by taking a position as an assistant on Mount Hamilton at the Lick Observatory of the University of California at Berkeley. He eventually enrolled in the university’s graduate school in July 1910 and received a Ph.D. in astronomy in 1913. During these years he was a fellow at the Lick Observatory, a leading center of stellar spectroscopy, where he obtained a great deal of experience in this field. Also in 1913 Merrill married Ruth Leslie Currier. They had one child, an adopted son....

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Payne-Gaposchkin, Cecilia (10 May 1900–07 December 1979), astrophysicist, was born in Wendover, England, the daughter of Edward John Payne, a lawyer and historian, and Emma Pertz, an artist. Payne’s father died when she was four years old, leaving slender resources for his wife and three children. Nonetheless, Cecilia, her brother Humfry, and her sister Lenora all traveled as children and attended private schools and university. Cecilia entered Newnham College of Cambridge University in 1919. Encouraged by the example of her aunt Dorothea Pertz, she planned to study science. Courses in botany, physics, and chemistry would prepare her to teach in a girls’ school. Toward the end of her first year at Newnham, Payne heard the astronomer Arthur Eddington lecture on his recent solar eclipse observations and their confirmation of ...

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Rutherfurd, Lewis Morris (25 November 1816–30 May 1892), astrophysicist, was born at Morrisania, New York, a residential section of the south Bronx, the son of Robert Walter Rutherfurd and Sabina Morris. While a student at Williams College (B.A., 1834), Rutherfurd helped Professor Ebenezer Emmons...

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Lyman Spitzer, Jr. Photograph by Denise Applewhite. Courtesy of Princeton University.

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Spitzer, Lyman, Jr. (26 June 1914–31 March 1997), theoretical astrophysicist and director of the Princeton University Observatory, was born in Toledo, Ohio, the son of Lyman Spitzer, a well-to-do businessman, and Blanche Brumback Spitzer. Young Lyman was educated in Toledo until he was fifteen, and then entered Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. Under the tutelage of a kindly teacher, he developed a strong interest in physics. Reading the popular books of English theorists Arthur Eddington and James Jeans inspired Spitzer's enthusiasm for research in the grandest topic in astrophysics, the evolution of the universe. In 1932 he entered Yale, earning his B.A. in theoretical physics under ...

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James A. Van Allen. At the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C., 1977. NASA.

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Van Allen, James A. (07 September 1914–09 August 2006), astrophysicist, was born James Alfred Van Allen in Mount Pleasant, Henry County, Iowa, the second of four sons of Alfred Morris Van Allen, a lawyer, and Alma Olney Van Allen, a schoolteacher. His paternal grandfather, George Clinton Van Allen, the son of a shipbuilder, was a surveyor for the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad who settled in Mount Pleasant in 1862, opening a law office that specialized in land titles. Alfred, educated at Iowa Wesleyan College and the State University of Iowa, followed his father in the business and Henry County politics. Alma was a farmer’s daughter from Eddyville, Iowa, who graduated from Iowa Wesleyan Academy and taught in a one-room schoolhouse. James later remembered his close-knit family as consciously aware of its relationship to those first trailblazing settlers who emphasized self-sufficiency, thrift, work, and education....

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Zwicky, Fritz (14 February 1898–08 February 1974), astrophysicist and space scientist, was born in Varna, Bulgaria, the son of Fridolin Zwicky, a Swiss merchant, and Franziska Wrcek. Zwicky’s early talent for science convinced his father to let him train for engineering rather than commerce. Accordingly, Zwicky moved to Zürich, Switzerland, where he attended the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule. There Zwicky soon evinced a more abstract bent, switching from engineering to physics and mathematics in 1918. To obtain his teaching diploma in 1920, he wrote for the mathematician and mathematical physicist ...