Maarten Schmidt is a Dutch-born American astronomer who became famous in 1963 when he identified the first quasar. Since then thousands of quasars have been identified. This discovery was so monumental that Time Magazine of March 11, 1966, put Schmidt on its front cover.
What is a quasar? A quasar is a quasi-stellar object. From the word quasi-stellar, the new word of quasar was coined. Quasars had been seen by astronomers before Schmidt identified them as quasars. But astronomers had always assumed that they were part of the solar system’s galaxy, the Milky Way. They just did not quite know what they were. Schmidt discovered that they were not part of the solar system’s galaxy, the Milky Way at all, but were in fact millions of light years away out in distant space. Schmidt discovered that they were compact halos of matter that surround the massive black holes of distant galaxies.
At the time of the quasar discovery, Schmidt was a Professor of Astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, and did most of his work at the Mount Palomar Observatory. He had joined the faculty of the California Institute of Technology in 1959.
Schmidt did his doctoral work in astronomy at the University of Leiden, working with Professor Jan Oort, one of the famous Dutch astronomers. Schmidt received his Ph. D. degree in astronomy from the University of Leiden, in 1956. Schmidt then did post doctoral work for two years, as a Carnegie Fellow, at the Mount Wilson and Mount Palomar Observatories. Schmidt then returned to the University of Leiden for one year, following which he was offered the faculty position at the California Institute of Technology.
Only four years following his faculty appointment, in 1963, Professor Schmidt made the quasar discovery discussed above. Professor Schmidt remained at the California Institute of Technology for the remainder of his academic career, working in both research and administrative positions. He formally retired in 1996, but continued to be actively involved in research activities in astronomy, and retained the academic title of Mosely Professor of Astronomy, Emeritus.
For his major contributions to the field of astronomy, Professor Schmidt received a number of awards. In 1964, the American Astronomical Society awarded him the Helen B. Warner Prize, followed, in 1966, by the Rumford Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Also in 1968, the Astronomische Gesellschaft, a German Astronomy Society, awarded Professor Schmidt the Karl Schwarzschild Medal.
During the decade of the 1970’s, Professor Schmidt was actively involved in administrative activities, and that may have contributed to the paucity in his award receptions. But in the late 1970’s, Professor Schmidt again became the recipient of several awards. The first one for that period, in 1979, was the Jansky Prize, bestowed on him by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and in1980, the Royal Astronomical Society, Great Britain, awarded him the Gold Medal.
The next award arrived in 1991 when the National Academy of Sciences awarded Professor Schmidt the James Craig Watson Medal. Up to that point, the Bruce Medal, a prominent award in astronomy, and awarded by the Pacific Astronomy Society, had eluded Professor Schmidt. But in 1992, it finally arrived. Professor Schmidt was awarded the Bruce Medal, a medal that had been awarded annually since the year 1898. Professor Schmidt joined a long list of prominent astronomers, covering more than a century.
The final award arrived over a decade following Professor Schmidt’s formal retirement, in 2008. It was the Kavli Prize for Astrophysics, a new prize launched that year. The Kavli Prize was for one million dollars, and was awarded to Professor Schmidt, and to his colleague, with whom he worked during the discovery of the quasar. The Kavli Prize was awarded by a Norwegian consortium consisting of a Norwegian foundation, two Norwegian government ministries and one Norwegian national academy. The four entities were the Kavli Foundation, the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Norwegian Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Professor Maarten Schmidt was born on December 29, 1929 in Groningen, the Netherlands. He studied at the University of Groningen, from where he graduated. Schmidt then went to the University of Leiden for graduate work. While there he studied under the direction of Professor Jan Oort, who is famous for his work in Astronomy. Professor Oort is well known in astronomy for his work on determining the rotation of our galaxie, the Milkie Way, and radio mapping of hydrogen clouds. The Oort Cloud is named after him.
Maarten Schmidt married Cornelia Tom with whom he had three children, all girls named Anne, Maryke and Elizabeth.
Maarten Schmidt, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maarten_Schmidt
The Bruce Medalists, http://phys-astro.sonoma.edu/brucemedalists/schmidt/
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