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November 19, 2001

Donald Osterbrock honored for contributions to the history of astronomy

By Tim Stephens

Donald Osterbrock, professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics, has been awarded the 2002 LeRoy E. Doggett Prize in the History of Astronomy from the American Astronomical Society's Historical Astronomy Division.

photo of Donald Osterbrock
Donald Osterbrock was director of Lick Observatory from 1973 to 1981.
Osterbrock, former director of Lick Observatory, has published numerous articles and books on the history of astronomy. His most recent book, a biography of astronomer Walter Baade, has just been published by Princeton University Press.

The Doggett Prize was established in memory of LeRoy Doggett, an astronomer and historian of astronomy at the U.S. Naval Observatory.

It is granted biennially to an individual who has significantly influenced the field of the history of astronomy. In January, Osterbrock will deliver the Doggett Prize Lecture at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, D.C.

The title of his talk will be "The View from the Observatory: History Is Too Important to Be Left to the Historians."

Walter Baade: A Life in Astrophysics is Osterbrock's fifth book on the history of American astronomy and the first book-length biography of this important astronomer. Although less well known outside the field of astronomy than Edwin Hubble, Baade was one of the most influential observational astronomers of the 20th century.

Hubble was known to the general public for his discovery of the expansion of the universe and his confirmation of the fact that our galaxy is just one of myriads of roughly similar star systems. Baade, who shied away from publicity, later revised Hubble's distance and age scales for the universe. But Osterbrock suggests in his book that these revisions, though important, were not Baade's greatest contribution to astrophysics. According to Osterbrock, Baade's discovery of two distinct stellar populations--old stars and young stars--had a more significant influence on the field of astrophysics.

Osterbrock's other books on the history of astronomy include Yerkes Observatory, 1892-1950: The Birth, Near Death, and Resurrection of a Scientific Institution; Pauper and Prince: Ritchey, Hale, and Big American Telescopes; and (with coauthors John Gustafson and Shiloh Unruh) Eye on the Sky: Lick Observatory's First Century. He has also published about 70 articles on the history of astronomy, most of them since his retirement in 1992.

As a researcher, Osterbrock has made major contributions to the body of knowledge on interstellar matter, gaseous nebulae, and the nuclei of active galaxies. His books on these subjects are standards in the field.

Osterbrock came to UCSC in 1972 and served as director of Lick Observatory from 1973 to 1981. Before joining UCSC's faculty, he was affiliated with Princeton University, the California Institute of Technology, and the University of Wisconsin.

Osterbrock is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and numerous professional organizations. He also is a foreign associate of the Royal Astronomical Society. The American Astronomical Society and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific have both lauded Osterbrock's career with their lifetime achievement awards, two of astronomy's highest honors. In 1997, the Royal Astronomical Society awarded Osterbrock its highest honor, the Gold Medal, in recognition of his lifetime achievement in the field of astronomy.

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