The Bruce Medalists


  Photo courtesy Prof. Luyten
Willem Jacob Luyten
7 March 1899 1968 Bruce Medalist 21 November 1994

Willem Luyten was born to Dutch parents in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, and moved to the Netherlands in 1912. He earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Amsterdam and his Ph.D., as the first student of Ejnar Hertzsprung, at Leiden in 1921. He worked at Lick Observatory, Harvard College Observatory, and, for nearly sixty years, at the University of Minnesota. For many of those years he was the university’s sole astronomer. In the 1920s he used proper motions to obtain statistical parallaxes and refine the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram of local stars. Using plates taken in the southern hemisphere, many of them by himself at Harvard’s Bloemfontein station, he found proper motions of more than 120,000 stars. Later he repeated the National Geographic Society-Palomar Sky Survey, had the engineers at Control Data Corp. build him an automated computerized plate scanner and measuring machine, and found 400,000 more. He did this despite losing the sight of one eye in 1925. He determined the density of stars in space as a function of luminosity and discovered the great majority of the white dwarfs known in his time. He also analyzed orbits of many spectroscopic binary stars. A highly successful teacher and popularizer, he wrote more than 200 articles for the New York Times. Calling himself a curmudgeon, he engaged in numerous disputes with fellow astronomers over priority and accuracy of discoveries.

Presentation of Bruce medal
Abt, H.A., PASP 80, 247-51 (1968).

Other awards
National Academy of Sciences, James Craig Watson Medal, 1964.

Biographical materials
Luyten, Willem J., My First 72 Years of Astronomical Research: Reminiscences of an Astronomical Curmudgeon, Revealing the Presence of Human Nature in Science (privately published, 1987).
New Netherland Institute
Upgren, Arthur, Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences 76, 198-217 (1999) [html or pdf].

Hoffleit, Dorrit, J. Am. Assoc. Variable Star Obs. 24, 43-49 (1996).
Humphreys, Roberta, Physics Today 48, 4, 107 (1995)
Luyten, James R., Bull. Am. Astr. Soc. 27, 1480-81 (1995).
Saxon, Wolfgang, New York Times, 26 November 1994
Upgren, Arthur R., PASP 107, 603-05 (1995).
Upgren, Arthur R., QJRAS 37, 453-56 (1996).

AIP Center for History of Physics (several)

Named after him
Minor planet #1964 Luyten
Luyten’s Star

More references

The Bruce Medalists

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