Donald Howard Menzel

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Donald Howard Menzel
Menzel Portrait.jpg
Donald Howard Menzel by Babette Whipple
Born April 11, 1901
Florence, Colorado
Died December 14, 1976
Boston, Massachusetts
Nationality United states
Fields Astronomy, Astrophysics, Star Formation
Institutions Lick Observatory, Harvard, Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Alma mater University of Denver, Princeton
Doctoral advisor Henry Norris Russell
Doctoral students Jesse L. Greenstein
Richard Nelson Thomas

Donald Howard Menzel (April 11, 1901 – December 14, 1976) was one of the first theoretical astronomers and astrophysicists in the US. He discovered the physical properties of the solar chromosphere, the chemistry of stars, the atmosphere of Mars, and the nature of gaseous nebulae.[1][2]

Biography[edit]

Born in Florence, Colorado in 1901 and raised in Leadville, he learned to read very early, and soon could send and receive messages in Morse code, taught by his father. He loved science and mathematics, collected ore and rock specimens, and as a teenager he built a large (and probably hazardous) chemistry laboratory in the cellar. He made a radio transmitter - no kits in those days - and qualified as a radio ham. He was an Eagle Scout, specializing in Cryptanalysis, as well as an outdoorsman, hiking and fly fishing throughout much of his life. He married Florence Elizabeth Kreager on June 17, 1926 and had two daughters (Suzanne Kay and Elizabeth Ina).

At 16, he enrolled in the University of Denver to study chemistry. His interest in astronomy was aroused through a boyhood friend (Edgar Kettering), through observing the solar eclipse of June 8, 1918, and through observing the eruption of Nova Aquilae 1918 (V603 Aquilae). He graduated from the University of Denver in 1920 with an A.B. degree in chemistry and an A.M. degree in chemistry and mathematics in 1921. He also found summer positions in 1922, 1923, and 1924 as research assistant to Harlow Shapley at the Harvard College Observatory. At Princeton University he acquired a second A.M. degree in astronomy in 1923, and in 1924 a Ph.D. in astrophysics for which his advisor was Henry Norris Russell, who inspired his interest in theoretical astronomy. After teaching two years at the University of Iowa and Ohio State University, in 1926 he was appointed assistant Professor at Lick Observatory in San Jose CA, where he worked for several years. In 1932 he moved to Harvard. During World War II Menzel was asked to join the Navy as Lieut. Commander, to head a division of intelligence, where he used his many-sided talents, including deciphering enemy codes. Even until 1955, he worked with the Navy improving radio-wave propagation by tracking the sun's emissions and studying the effect of the aurora on radio propagation for the Department of Defense (Menzel & Boyd, p. 60[3]). Returning to Harvard after the war, he was appointed acting director of the Harvard Observatory in 1952, and was the full director from 1954 to 1966. The term "Menzel Gap" was used to refer to the absence of astronomical photographic plates during a brief period in the 1950s when plate-making operations were temporarily halted by Menzel as a cost-cutting measure.[4] He retired from Harvard in 1971. From 1964 to his death, Menzel was a U.S. State Department consultant for Latin American affairs.

He received honorary A.M. and Sc.D. degrees from Harvard University in 1942 and the University of Denver in 1954 respectively. From 1946-1948 he was the Vice President of the American Astronomical Society, becoming their President from 1954-1956. In 1965, Menzel was given the John Evans Award of the University of Denver. In May 2001, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics hosted "Donald H. Menzel: Scientist, Educator, Builder," a symposium in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Donald H. Menzel.

Menzel is renowned for traveling with expeditions to view solar eclipses to obtain scientific data. On 19 June 1936, he led the Harvard-MIT expedition to the steppes of Russia (at Ak Bulak in southwestern Siberia) to observe a total eclipse. For the 9 July 1945 eclipse, he directed the Joint U.S.-Canadian expedition to Saskatchewan, although they were clouded out. Menzel observed many total solar eclipses, often leading the expeditions, including Catalina California (10 September 1923, cloudy), Camptonville California (28 April 1930), Freyburg Maine (31 August 1932), Minneapolis-St. Paul Minnesota (30 June 1954), the Atlantic coast of Massachusetts (2 October 1959), northern Italy (15 February 1951), Orono Maine (20 July 1963, cloudy), Athens/Sunion Road, Greece (20 May 1966), Arequipa Peru (12 November 1966), Miahuatlan, south of Oaxaca, Mexico (7 March 1970), Prince Edward Island Canada (10 July 1972), and western Mauritania (30 June 1973), in addition to the other three mentioned above.[5]

In the late 1930s he built an observatory for solar research at Climax CO, using a telescope that mimicked a total eclipse of the sun, allowing him and his colleagues to study the sun's corona and to film the spouting flames, called prominences, emitted by the sun. Menzel initially performed solar research, but later concentrated on studying gaseous nebulae. His work with Lawrence Aller and James Gilbert Baker defined many of the fundamental principles of the study of planetary nebulae. He wrote the first edition (1964) of A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets, part of the Peterson Field Guides. In one of his last papers,[6] Menzel concluded, based on his analysis of the Schwarzschild equations, that black holes do not exist, and he declared them to be a myth.

Menzel and UFOs[edit]

In addition to his academic and popular contributions to the field of astronomy, Menzel was a prominent skeptic concerning the reality of UFOs. He authored or co-authored three popular books debunking UFOs: Flying Saucers - Myth - Truth - History (1953),[7] The World of Flying Saucers (1963, co-authored with Lyle G Boyd),[3] and The UFO Enigma (1977, co-authored with Ernest H. Taves).[8] All of Menzel's UFO books argued that UFOs are nothing more than misidentification of prosaic phenomena such as stars, clouds and airplanes; or the result of people seeing unusual atmospheric phenomena they were unfamiliar with. He often suggested that atmospheric hazes or temperature inversions could distort stars or planets, and make them appear to be larger than in reality, unusual in their shape, and in motion. In 1968, Menzel testified before the U.S. House Committee on Science and Astronautics - Symposium on UFOs, stating that he considered all UFO sightings to have natural explanations.

He was perhaps the first prominent scientist to offer his opinion on the matter, and his stature doubtless influenced the mainstream and academic response to the subject. Perhaps Menzel's earliest public involvement in UFO matters was his appearance on a radio documentary directed and narrated by Edward R. Murrow in mid-1950. (Swords, 98)

Menzel had his own UFO experience when he observed a 'flying saucer' while returning on 3 March 1955 from the North Pole on the daily Air Force Weather "Ptarmigan" flight. His account is in both Menzel & Boyd[3] and Menzel & Taves.[8] He later identified it as a mirage of Sirius, but Steuart Campbell claims that it was a mirage of Saturn.[9]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Goldberg, L.; Aller, L. H. (1991). Donald Howard Menzel. National Academy of Sciences. 
  2. ^ Gingerich, Owen (May 1977). "Donald H. Menzel". Physics Today 30 (5): 67–69. Bibcode:1977PhT....30e..96G. doi:10.1063/1.3037558. 
  3. ^ a b c Menzel, D. H.; Boyd, L. G. (1963). The World Of Flying Saucers: A Scientific Examination of a Major Myth of the Space Age. Doubleday. LCCN 63012989. 
  4. ^ Johnson, G. (July 10, 2007). "A Trip Back in Time and Space". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-04-21. 
  5. ^ Pasachoff, J. M. (2002). "Menzel and Eclipses". Journal for the History of Astronomy 33: 139–156. Bibcode:2002JHA....33..139P. 
  6. ^ Menzel, D. H. (1976). "Superstars and the black hole myth". Mémoires de la Société Royale des Sciences de Liège 9: 343–353. Bibcode:1976MSRSL...9..343M. 
  7. ^ Menzel, D. H. (1953). Flying Saucers. Harvard University Press. LCCN 52012419. 
  8. ^ a b Menzel, D. H.; Taves, E. H. (1977). The UFO Enigma: The Definitive Explanation of the UFO Phenomenon. Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-03596-9. LCCN 76016255. 
  9. ^ Campbell, S. (1994). The UFO Mystery Solved. Explicit Books. pp. 61–64. ISBN 0-9521512-0-0. 

Sources[edit]

Publications[edit]

Menzel published over 270 scientific and other papers.

External links[edit]