Willem Jacob Luyten

Willem Jacob Luyten


Date of Birth
March 7, 1899
Date of Death
November 21, 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 ObservatoryHarvard 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


Papers, etc.

Papers are at the University of Minnesota Archives.

Other References: Historical

Heuvel, E.P.J. van den, “Twee markante Nederlandse sterrenkundigen,” Zenit 24, 12-17 (1997) [on Luyten and Peter van de Kamp, in Dutch].

Kauffner, Peter, “Star Scanner is Cataloging the Universe,”Minnesota Daily, 30 April 1997.

McNally, D., ed., Proceedings of the Twentieth General Assembly of the IAU, Baltimore, MD, August 2 - 11, 1988 (Kluwer, Dordrecht, 1990), 1, 4.

Williams, D.B., “Unfinished Business: Luyten’s Harvard Variables - I,” Journal of the American Association of Variable Star Observers 28, no. 1, 12-17 (2000).

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Other References: Scientific

Le Coultre, F., et al., “La Nova de l'Aigle-Serpent,” L’Astronomie 32, 316-24 (1918).

Luyten, W.J., “Photographic Positions of Neptune Obtained between March and May 1920,” MNRAS 80, 784-86 (1920).

Luyten, W.J., “Visual and Photographic Observations of Nova Cygni 3, Made at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich,” MNRAS 81, 61-65 (1920).

Luyten, W.J., Observations of Variable Stars [Ph.D. Thesis] (Eduard Ijdo, Leiden, 1921).

Luyten, W.J., “The Visual and Photographic Light-curve of V 18=RZ Cephei 223564,” MNRAS 81, 398-400 (1921).

Luyten, W.J., “On the Relation between Parallax, Proper Motion, and Apparent Magnitude,” Lick Observatory Bulletin 10, 135-40 (1922).

Lundmark, Knut & Willem Luyten, “Parallaxes of Stars Determined from Spectrum and Proper Motion,” Lick Observatory Bulletin 10, 153-56 (1922).

Luyten, W.J., “On the Form of the Distribution Law of Stellar Velocities,” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 9, 191-94 (1923).

Gerasimovic B.P. & W.J. Luyten,“On the Distance of the Sun from the Galactic Plane,” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 13, 387-90 (1927).

Luyten, Willem J., “On the Motion of the Magellanic Clouds,” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 14, 241-45 (1928).

Luyten, W.J., “On the Systematic and Accidental Errors of Modern Trigonometric Parallaxes,” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 16, 464-73 (1930).

Luyten, W.J., “A Rediscussion of the Orbits of Seventy-Seven Spectroscopic Binaries,” Ap.J. 84, 85-103 (1936).

Luyten, W.J., “The White Dwarfs,” Science 101, 79-82 (1945).

Luyten, Willem J., “An Atlas of Identification Charts of White Dwarfs,” Ap.J. 109, 528-31 (1949).

Luyten, Willem J., “The Search for White Dwarfs,” Astronomical Journal 55, 86-88 (1950).

Luyten, Willem J., “The Spectra and Luminosities of White Dwarfs,” Ap.J. 116, 283-90 (1952).

Luyten, Willem J., “White Dwarfs and Degenerate Stars,” Vistas in Astronomy 2, 1048-56 (1956).

Luyten, Willem J., A Catalogue of 9867 Stars in the Southern Hemisphere with Proper Motions Exceeding 0."2 Annually (Lund Press, Minneapolis, 1957).

Luyten, Willem J., A catalogue of 7127 stars in the Northern Hemisphere with proper motions exceeding 0."2 annually (Lund Press, Minneapolis, 1961).

Haro, G. & W.J. Luyten, “Faint Blue Stars in the Region near the South Galactic Pole,” Boletín de los Observatorios de Tonantzintla y Tacubaya 3, 37-117 (1962).

Kraft, Robert P. & Willem J. Luyten, “Binary Stars among Cataclusmic Variables.VI. on the Mean Absolute Magnitude of U Geminorum Variables.,” Ap.J. 142, 1041-50 (1962).

Luyten, W.J., “Astrofantasies and Contracts,” Science 145, 231 (1964).

Kraft, Robert P. & Willem J. Luyten, “Binary Stars among Cataclysmic Variables.VI. on the Mean Absolute Magnitude of U Geminorum Variables,” Ap.J. 142, 1041-50 (1965).

Luyten, W.J., “Observations on Observational and Other Astronomy,” Science 153, 366-68 (1966) [letter to the editor criticizing an article by Kip Thorne].

Sandage, Allan & Willem J. Luyten, “On the Nature of Faint Blue Objects in High Galactic Latitudes. I. Photometry, Proper Motions, and Spectra in PHL Field 1:36+6° and Richter Field M3, II,” Ap.J. 148, 767-79 (1967).

Luyten, Willem J. & Richard R. Erickson, An Analysis of the Stream Motions of 25,800 Very Faint Stars (Univ. of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1967).

Luyten, W.J., “A New Determination of the Luminosity Function,” MNRAS 139, 221-24 (1968).

Sandage, Allan & Willem J. Luyten, “On the Nature of Faint Blue Objects in High Galactic Latitudes. II. Summary of Photometric Results for 301 Objects in Seven Survey Fields,” Ap.J. 155, 913-18 (1969).

Luyten, Willem J., A Search for Faint Blue Stars. L. Proper Motions for 951 Faint Blue Stars (Univ. of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1969).

Luyten, Willem J., ed., Proper Motions: IAU Colloquium No. 7, held at Control Data Corporation, Minneapolis, 21-23 April 1970 (Univ. of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1970).

Newcomb, James, Anton E. La Bonte, & Willem J. Luyten, The Automated-Computerized Plate Scanner and Measuring Machine (Univ. of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, 1970).

Luyten, Willem J., White Dwarf Catalogues (1970-77)

Luyten, W.J., “The White Dwarfs: Discovery and Observation,” in White Dwarfs, Proceedings from IAU Symposium no. 42, Willem J. Luyten, ed. (Springer-Verlag, Dordrecht, 1971), pp. 1-7.

Luyten, W.J., “The Stars of Low Luminosity,” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 71, 4813-15 (1974).

Luyten, W.J., “Stellar Motion Survey by Automation,” Science 185, 351-52 (1974).

Luyten, W.J., “Science, Fashion or Fiction?” [letter, with reply following] Observatory 94, 136-38 (1974).

Luyten, Willem J., The Stars of Low Luminosity (Minneapolis, MN, 1977).

Luyten, Willem J., “Statistical HR Diagrams for One Hundred and Fifteen Thousand Proper-Motion Stars,” in The HR Diagram: the 100th anniversary of Henry Norris Russell: Proceedings from IAU Symposium no. 80 held at the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., 2-5 November, 1977, A. G. Davis Philip and Donald S. Hayes, eds., (Reidel, Boston, 1978), p. 63-64 (1978).

Luyten, W.J., “Kinematics of Faint White Dwarfs,” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 75, 4640-41 (1978).

Luyten, Willem J., LNew Luyten catalogue of stars with proper motions larger than two tenths of an arcsecond; and first supplement; NLTT. (Univ. of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1979) [online data].

Luyten, Willem J., LHS Catalogue. A Catalogue of Stars with Proper Motions Exceeding 0"5 Annually, 2nd ed. (Univ. of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1979) [online data].

Luyten, Willem J., “The Stars of Low Luminosity,” Comments on Astrophysics 12, 6, 281-86 (1988) [abstract].

Hintzen, P., T.D. Oswalt, & W.J. Luyten, “Identifications for Luyten Common Proper Motion Stars With White Dwarf Components. II. Pairs Fainter Than 17th Magnitude,” Bull. Am. Astr. Soc. 28, 945 (1996) [abstract of paper presented to AAS, 1996].

Warren, Wayne H., Jr., Conrad R. Sturch, Barry M. Lasker, Hartmut Jahreiss, & Willem J. Luyten, “A Digitized Version of the NLTT Catalogue of Proper Motions,” Astronomical Journal 97, 1480-84 (1989).

Hintzen, P., T.D. Oswalt, & W.J. Luyten, “Identifications for Luyten Common Proper Motion Stars With White Dwarf Components. II. Pairs Fainter Than 17th Magnitude,” Bull. Am. Astr. Soc. 28, 945 (1996) [abstract of paper presented to AAS 188th meeting, June 1996].

Kirkpatrick, J. Davy, “Pursuing Luyten’s Discoveries: The Quest for Cooler and Nearer Dwarfs,” in Roberta M. Humphreys, ed., Proper Motions and Galactic Astronomy. ASP Conference Series; Vol. 127 (Astronomical Society of the Pacific, San Francisco, 1997), p. 73-81.

Rees, R.F., Jr., R.M. Humphreys, & C.S. Cornuelle, “The APS-Luyten Proper Motion Project,” Bull. Am. Astr. Soc. 30, 901 (1998) [Abstract of paper presented to AAS, June 1998]

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Other Works: Popularizations, Textbooks, etc.

Luyten, Willem J., The Pageant of the Stars (Doubleday, Doran, & Co., Garden City, NY, 1929, 1933).