|Born||November 2, 1885|
Nashville, Missouri, U.S.
|Died||October 20, 1972 (aged 86)|
Boulder, Colorado, U.S.
|Alma mater||University of Missouri, Princeton University|
|Known for||Determining correct position of Sun within Milky Way Galaxy; head of Harvard College Observatory (1921-1952)|
|Doctoral advisor||Henry Norris Russell|
|Doctoral students||Georges Lemaître, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin|
Harlow Shapley (November 2, 1885 – October 20, 1972) was an American scientist, head of the Harvard College Observatory (1921-1952), and political activist during the latter New Deal and Fair Deal.
Shapley used Cepheid variable stars to estimate the size of the Milky Way Galaxy and the Sun's position within it by using parallax. In 1953 he proposed his "liquid water belt" theory, now known as the concept of a habitable zone.
Shapley was born on a farm five miles outside Nashville, Missouri, to Willis and Sarah (née Stowell) Shapley. He went to school in Jasper, Missouri, but not beyond elementary school. He worked as a journalist after studying at home and covering crime stories as a newspaper reporter for the Daily Sun in Chanute, Kansas, and intermittently for the Times of Joplin, Missouri. In Chanute, he found a Carnegie library and started reading and studying on his own. Shapley returned to complete a six-year high school program in 1.5 years, graduating as class valedictorian.
In 1907, Shapley went to the University of Missouri to study journalism. When he learned that the opening of the School of Journalism had been postponed for a year, he decided to study the first subject he came across in the course directory. Rejecting Archaeology, which Shapley later claimed he could not pronounce, he chose the next subject, Astronomy.
After graduation, Shapley received a fellowship to Princeton University for graduate work, where he studied under Henry Norris Russell and used the period-luminosity relation for Cepheid variable stars (discovered by Henrietta Swan Leavitt) to determine distances to globular clusters. He was instrumental in moving astronomy away from the idea that Cepheids were spectroscopic binaries, and toward the concept that they were pulsators.
He realized that the Milky Way Galaxy was far larger than previously believed, and that the Sun's place in the galaxy was in a nondescript location. This discovery supports the Copernican principle, according to which the Earth is not at the center of our Solar System, our galaxy, or our Universe.
Shapley participated in the "Great Debate" with Heber D. Curtis on the nature of nebulae and galaxies and the size of the Universe. The debate took place on April 26, 1920, in the hall of the United States National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC. Shapley took the side that spiral nebulae (what are now called galaxies) are inside our Milky Way, while Curtis took the side that the spiral nebulae are 'island universes' far outside our own Milky Way and comparable in size and nature to our own Milky Way. This issue and debate are the start of extragalactic astronomy, while the detailed arguments and data, often with ambiguities, appeared together in 1921.
Characteristic issues were whether Adriaan van Maanen had measured rotation in a spiral nebula, the nature and luminosity of the exploding novae and supernovae seen in spiral galaxies, and the size of our own Milky Way. However, Shapley's actual talk and argument given during the Great Debate were completely different from the published paper. Historian Michael Hoskin says "His decision was to treat the National Academy of Sciences to an address so elementary that much of it was necessarily uncontroversial.", with Shapley's motivation being only to impress a delegation from Harvard who were interviewing him for a possible offer as the next Director of Harvard College Observatory. With the default by Shapley, Curtis won the debate. The astronomical issues were soon resolved in favor of Curtis' position when Edwin Hubble discovered Cepheid variable stars in the Andromeda Galaxy.
At the time of the debate, Shapley was working at the Mount Wilson Observatory, where he had been hired by George Ellery Hale. After the debate, however, he was hired to replace the recently deceased Edward Charles Pickering as director of the Harvard College Observatory (HCO).
He is also known to have incorrectly opposed Edwin Hubble's observations that there are additional galaxies in the universe other than the Milky Way. Shapley fiercely critiqued Hubble and regarded his work as junk science. However, after he received a letter from Hubble showing Hubble's observed light curve of V1, he withdrew his criticism. He reportedly told a colleague, "Here is the letter that destroyed my universe." He also encouraged Hubble to write a paper for a joint meeting of the American Astronomical Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science. Hubble's findings went on to reshape fundamentally the scientific view of the universe.
Despite having earlier argued strongly against the idea of galaxies other than our Milky Way, Shapley went on to make significant progress in the research of the distribution of galaxies, working between 1925 and 1932. In this time period, with the Harvard College Observatory, he worked to map 76,000 galaxies. One of the first astronomers to believe in the existence of galaxy superclusters, Shapley later discovered and found a rather notable, very large and distant example - which would in 1989 be named Shapley Supercluster. He had estimated the distance to this supercluster at 231 Mpc, which is within 15% of the currently accepted value.
He served as director of the HCO from 1921-1952. During this time, he hired Cecilia Payne, who, in 1925, became the first person to earn a doctorate at Radcliffe College in the field of astronomy, for work done at Harvard College Observatory.
From 1941 he was on the original standing committee of the Foundation for the Study of Cycles. He also served on the board of trustees of Science Service, now known as Society for Science & the Public, from 1935-1971.
In the 1940s, Shapley helped found government funded scientific associations, including the National Science Foundation. He is also responsible for the addition of the "S" in UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).
On November 14, 1946, Shapley appeared under subpoena by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in his role as member of the Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions (ICCASP), which HUAC described as a "major political arm of the Russophile left". It had opposed re-election of U.S. Representative Joseph William Martin Jr. during mid-term elections that year and was asked to answer questions about the ICCASP's Massachusetts' chapter. HUAC committee chairman John E. Rankin commented about Shapley's attitude, "I have never seen a witness treat a committee with more contempt" and considered contempt of Congress charges. Shapley accused HUAC of "Gestapo methods" and advocated for its abolition, saying that it had made "civic cowards of many citizens" by pursuing the "bogey of political radicalism."
A few weeks later, in early 1947, Shapley became President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). At the time, the AAAS's choice appeared to be a "rebuke" of HUAC and a positive championing of scientists. In his inaugural address, Shapley referred to the danger of the "genius maniac" and proposed the elimination of "all primates that show any evidence of signs of genius or even talent". Other global threats he listed were: drugs that suppressed the desire for sex; boredom; world war with weapons of mass destruction; a plague epidemic.
In 1950, Shapley was instrumental in organizing a campaign in academia against Worlds in Collision by Russian expatriate psychiatrist Immanuel Velikovsky. Scientists generally considered this controversial US bestseller to be pseudoscience.
Shapley married Martha Betz (1890-1981) in April 1914, whom he had met in Missouri. She assisted her husband in astronomical research both at Mount Wilson and at Harvard Observatory. She wrote numerous articles on eclipsing stars and other astronomical objects.
They had one daughter, editor and writer Mildred Shapley Matthews; and four sons. These included Lloyd Shapley, a mathematician and economist who won a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 2012, and Willis Shapley, who became a Senior Executive Service leader at NASA.
Named after him are:
Before the anti-communist phrase "Better Dead Than Red" became popular during McCarthyism in the 1950s, Dr. Shapley said in a 1947 speech entitled "Peace or Pieces" that "A slave world is not worth preserving. Better be lifeless like the cold moon, or primitively vegetal like desolate Mars, than be a planet populated by social robots."
Shapley wrote many books on astronomy and the sciences. Among these was Source Book in Astronomy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1929--co-written with Helen E. Howarth, also on the staff of the Harvard College Observatory), the first of the publisher's series of source books in the history of the sciences.
In his 1957 book "Of Stars and Men", Shapley proposed the term Metagalaxies for what are now called superclusters.
Shapley was not committed to any particular model of the expanding universe, but he did have strong opinions about the relationship between astronomy and religion. A confirmed agnostic, in the postwar period he often participated in science-religion discussions, and in 1960 he edited a major work on the subject -- Science Ponders Religion.
Although a declared agnostic, Shapley was deeply interested in religion and was a genuinely 'religious' person from a philosophical point of view. 'I never go to church', he told Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, 'I am too religious.
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