Not many people live to the ripe old age of 94 years. Willem Luyten did, and almost lived to age 95, just three months short of it. Of those 95 years he spent nearly sixty years at the University of Minnesota, as the University’s astronomy professor. For many years he was the only astronomy professor at the University. Since he was the only one astronomer, he probably felt obligated to do an enormous amount of research, especially in his specialty, determining the proper motions of the stars. Proper motions of the stars are used to obtain statistical parallaxes, and they allow one to refine the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram of the stars.
In order to find the proper motions of stars, readings taken by observatories are used to determine the proper motions. In the early days of his career, in the 1920’s, he used readings taken at Harvard’s Bloemfontein observatory in South Africa. Many of the readings were taken by Luyten himself. Using the readings, he then was able to find the proper motions of 10,000 stars. Later in his career, he was able to use the National Geographic Society’s Palomar Sky survey, built an automated plate scanner and measuring machine, and was able to find the proper motions of an additional 40,000 stars. During his life time he was able to determine the proper motions of over 200,000 stars. No other astronomer has even come close to Luyten’s contributions in the area of proper motions of stars. He was able to do this with only one eye. He lost sight in his other eye in a tennis accident when he was in his twenties.
Luyten earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Amsterdam in 1918. He then entered the University of Leiden’s astronomy doctoral program and graduated with his doctoral degree in 1921. Luyten was Ejnar Hertzsprung’s first doctoral student. Hertzsprung later became the doctoral supervisor of Gerard Kuiper’s doctoral dissertation. The University of Leiden at that time was actively involved in astronomy, and Luyten was able to benefit from the presence of such luminaries in astronomy as Antonie Pannekoek, Willem de Sitter, Jan Woltjer, Jan Oort, and others.
Following the completion of his dissertation, in 1921, Luyten, as did several of his fellow doctoral colleagues, moved to the United States. His first position was as a fellow at the Lick Observatory in California. Two years later, Luyten was offered a position at Harvard College Observatory. There he worked with Howard Shapley for seven years. The last two years he spent at Harvard’s Bloemfontein Observatory in South Africa. While at the Lick Observatory, Luyten was able to predict and confirm that the sodium D lines differ widely in intensity among the cooler stars, between giant stars and normal dwarf stars of the same surface temperature. It was at the Bloemfontein Observatory in South Africa that Luyten became interested in the proper motion of stars, and he would devote most of the rest of his life time to that subject, and in doing so became the most prolific contributor to the proper motion of stars.
Near the end of his career, at his retirement in 1967, Luyten was honored for his work during his astronomy career. In 1964, Luyten was awarded the James Craig Watson Medal. And in 1968, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific awarded Luyten the Bruce Medal. The Bruce medal is awarded annually by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, a society which aims to advance the science of astronomy. The Society was founded in 1889, and has been awarding the Bruce Medal annually since 1898. Two years later, in 1970, Luyten was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Also in 1970, Luyten was awarded an honorary doctorate degree by St. Andrew’s University, the oldest educational institution in Scotland. Only Benjamin Franklin and two others preceded him in this honor. Two bodies in space are named after Luyten. Out there in space are the “Asteroid 1964 Luyten, and “Luyten’s Star”.
Following his retirement, Luyten remained active in his chosen career. In April 1970, he organized and headed the first conference on proper motions, and the proceedings were published by the International Astronomical Union. The International Astronomical Union Colloqium in 1987, a conference focused on wide components in double and multiple stars, was dedicated to Luyten. At the conference Luyten gave a review of his life time research. At that time he was 88 years old.
During his long academic and research career, Luyten published over 500 research papers and wrote numerous popular articles on astronomy for the New York Times, the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, and other news outlets. Luyten led a productive career to say the least.
Luyten’s parents were from the province of North Holland in the Netherlands. His father was a school teacher and took a position in Samarang, the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, before Luyten was born. As a result when Luyten was born on March 7, 1899, the family lived in Samarang, Indonesia. The family would remain there until 1912, when the family moved back to Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Luyten married Willemina Miedema, who he met while in Bloemfontein, South Africa. There is no information on whether the couple had children. Luyten passed away on November 21, 1994, at the age of 94.
Willem Jacob Luyten, www.phys-astro.sonoma.edu/BruceMedalists/Luyten/Luyten.html
Willem Jacob Luyten, Biographical Memoirs
Willem Jacob Luyten, Wikipedia
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