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NOAO Newsletter - NOAO Highlights! - December 1998 - Number 56

A Remembrance of Olin Eggen - 1919-1998

With the passing of Olin Eggen on 2 October, we lost an energetic and trailblazing researcher, a vigorous advocate for CTIO, and a warm friend of many of us around the world. Nick Suntzeff made the following remarks at a memorial service held here, shortly after Olin's death in Australia.

Olin Eggen

It is difficult to express one's feelings at the time of the death of a dear friend. Many of us take comfort in the wise teachings of Western Religion. If there be an afterlife, Science cannot tell us. However, the memories and affection we have for Olin live on in us, and in that allegorical sense, a life is not lost but lives on in all the people that knew Olin. People around the world--—Pasadena, Tucson, Mt. Hamilton, Champaign-Urbana, Washington DC, Cambridge, Cape Town, La Serena, Canberra, Fremont CA--—remember Olin in their own ways. But I imagine we all bonded by the similar ways in which he affected our lives. I think that Malcolm Smith put it well when he said "Olin is someone whom we remember more with a chuckle than a tear. While we all know his stature as a scientist is truly world-class, we will also remember the twinkle in his eye and his wonderful sense of humor. Astronomy has lost a truly great colleague and a wonderful human being."

Olin was one of those special people that grew out of the Depression years in the US. He was born Olin Jeuck Eggen to Olin Eggen and Bertha Clare Jeuck of Orfordville, Wisconsin on 9 July 1919. He was the first born child to a very young couple of 21 years old. Olin was very private about his early life, but one can imagine it was very difficult living on a rural farm in the 1920's and 1930's. He graduated from Orfordville Public High School in 1937 in a class of 14 students. Their class motto was "Perseverance overcomes everything," a philosophy, no doubt, based on the difficult life where most students did not complete high school. Evidently his parents encouraged his studies. Elaine Mac-Auliffe was told by Olin that when he was young he would sometimes wake up terrified at night that there was so much to know and not enough time to learn it all!

He entered the University of Wisconsin and graduated in three years, in 1940. One forgets how revolutionary this was: a farm boy from a poor rural family of the United States being allowed and encouraged to go to college. The Second World War interrupted his life, and he joined in the war effort. Olin never told me the full story of his war years. He was assigned as a Scientific Liaison to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and spent time behind the lines in the Balkans and Austria as well as the Pacific. I was told he posed as a ball bearing salesman or specialist as his cover. He rose to the rank of Captain.

After the war, he went back to the University of Wisconsin where he received his PhD in astrophysics in 1948. For the next 50 years he spent, as he called it, a "Life in the Dark" as one of the most influential observational astronomers of the last half-century. Over that time he was an Assistant Astronomer at Lick Observatory (1949-1956), Chief Assistant to the Royal Astronomer at the Royal Greenwich Observatory (1956-1961), Professor of Astronomy at Caltech and Staff Astronomer at the Hale Observatories (1961-66), Director of the Mt. Stromlo and Siding Spring Observatory and Head of the Department of Astronomy at ANU (1966-77), and finally Astronomer at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (1977-1998). As he would joke, the only bad thing about his job at CTIO was that he had never lived so far from the office before.

It is easy to forget how profoundly our concept of the Universe has changed in the last 50 years, and Olin was one of the astronomers who was at the head of this advancement. At the time of Olin's PhD, careful measurements of the brightness of objects were just beginning. The estimated size of the Universe was 10X larger than we know it is today, and people argued if the Universe really was expanding or if it was an optical illusion. The whole field of stellar evolution was obscure. Where are stars born? How do stars die? Why do some stars become giants? At that time all stars were thought to be made of the same gaseous material. The instrument that drastically transformed our knowledge of the Universe was the photomultipiler tube, which was invented during the war and applied to astronomy first by Professor Whitford and his young associates at the Washburn Observatory—including Olin Eggen. This instrument allowed astronomers to measure the brightness of objects to an accuracy of 1%, which was 10× better than in the past. That was Olin's observational specialty that he took with him around the world. As an aside, you can imagine how scared I was when I first came to CTIO in 1980 to do photoelectric photometry on the 60", and learned that Eggen would be instructing me! Olin told me that he actually hated observing--—staying up all night in a dark dome. He had to do it, because no one else took data that were good enough!

Olin used photometry to study the structure of stars and their orbits in the Galaxy. He is most remembered for his paper which all astronomers know as ELS "Eggen, Lynden-Bell, Sandage 1962. "Evidence from the Motions of Old Stars that the Galaxy Collapsed." This paper has been named as one of the 100 seminal papers on astronomy this century and will be republished as part of the American Astronomical Society Centennial. Imagine how controversial this idea was! The Galaxy was not an immutable swirl of stars that had always been, but it collapsed from a giant gas cloud. Galaxies live (and by implication) die as do stars and people. Olin's careful studies showed that the Galaxy is made up of distinct associations of stars--—a punctuated growth and evolution rather than a continuous process. Many of his ideas about the "moving groups" of stars and thick disks of galaxies took years to be accepted. In fact, the idea that stars can maintain a kinematic signature over long periods of time is a concept very much in vogue right now, yet 10 years ago it was a pretty wild idea championed almost alone by Olin.

This is the scientific legacy of Olin Eggen, the astronomer. As Olin the very human man we all associated with, we will remember him for his sense of humor, his very deep humility in front of Nature, and his very human concern for those around him. In remembrance of Olin, I would like to insert a short piece written by him, the last paragraph from his autobiographical article for Annual Reviews, "Notes from a Life in the Dark."

"Walter Baade was once asked, if starting over would he still be involved in astronomy? After a little thought he replied "yes, but only if the ratio of total to selective absorption is the same everywhere." That was the public Baade's response--—the personal one would almost certainly have been an unqualified yes. Most astronomers are involved in our discipline by compulsion and are overjoyed at being paid to do what we would at least be trying to do, in any case. The answer to another question--—what do you personally receive from research?--—would be more varied. The short answer, of course, is that it is fun. My opinion is that it has nothing (or very little) to do with a craving for recognition, present or posthumous, but is essentially self-centered with an aim of self-satisfaction. Flamsteed, whom Newton called "an insolent puppy" is little remembered although Newton would have had difficulties without his observations. Sir Richard Woolley used to become very upset upon finding current astronomy students unaware of the name of Eddington. I really doubt Eddington would have minded—although he had made valuable contributions but he also had his personal satisfaction. Science may benefit very much (or only very little) from what we do but since we do it for ourselves, for the satisfaction of our own curiosity, we should be thankful for the circumstances that permit a life in the dark."

Nicholas Suntzeff (
6 October 1998, La Serena, Chile

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