Bart Bok

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Bart Bok
Bart Bok 1983a.jpg
Bart Bok (1906–1983)
in his final year, 1983.
Born Bartholomeus Jan Bok
(1906-04-28)April 28, 1906
Hoorn, Netherlands
Died August 5, 1983(1983-08-05) (aged 77)
Tucson, Arizona, United States
Citizenship American
Nationality Dutch-American
Fields Astronomy
Alma mater Leiden; Groningen
Known for The Milky Way; Bok globules
Spouse Priscilla Fairfield Bok
Children Joyce and John

Bartholomeus Jan "Bart" Bok (April 28, 1906 – August 5, 1983) was a Dutch-born American astronomer, teacher, and lecturer. He is best known for his work on the structure and evolution of the Milky Way galaxy, and for the discovery of Bok globules, which are small, densely dark clouds of interstellar gas and dust that can be seen silhouetted against brighter backgrounds. Bok suggested that these globules may be in the process of contracting, before forming into stars.

Bok married fellow astronomer Dr. Priscilla Fairfield in 1929, and for the remainder of their lives, the two collaborated so closely on their astronomical work that the Royal Astronomical Society said "from that point on it is difficult and pointless to separate his achievements from hers".[1] The Boks displayed such great mutual enthusiasm for explaining astronomy to the public that The Boston Globe described them in 1936 as "salesmen of the Milky Way".[2](p44) They worked together on research and co-authored academic papers, and their general interest book The Milky Way went through five editions and was "widely acclaimed as one of the most successful astronomical books ever published".[3]

Bok's primary research interest was the structure of our galaxy.[4] When he was asked by the editors of Who's Who in America to submit a statement concerning "Thoughts on My Life", he wrote, "I have been a happy astronomer for the past sixty years, wandering through the highways and byways of our beautiful Milky Way."[5]

Bart Bok was an exceedingly popular personality in the field of astronomy, noted for his affability and humor. When asteroid 1983 Bok was named for him and his wife Priscilla, he thanked the International Astronomical Union for giving him "a little plot of land that I can retire to and live on."[6]

Early life and studies 1906–1929[edit]

Bok was born in the small Dutch town of Hoorn, north of Amsterdam, to Jan Bok, who was a sergeant-major in the Dutch army, and Gesina Annetta (née van der Lee) Bok, but he spent a good deal of his childhood with his grandparents in the town of Haarlem, where he attended primary school. He attended high school in The Hague, excelling at mathematics and science, and he also told the story that this was where he met a Scoutmaster who introduced him to the night sky while on camping trips away from the city lights. After completing high school, he went on to study astronomy at Leiden and Groningen Universities.[7][8]

In 1928, he attended the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Third General Assembly in Leiden in the Netherlands. Priscilla Fairfield was an associate professor in Astronomy, and the young Bart Bok was assigned to her reception committee. He was a graduate student ten years her junior, but he fell in love and proposed to her at the end of the conference. Priscilla did not accept his proposal at the time, and Bart corresponded with her for the next year before she finally agreed.[2](p16)[9][10](p4)

The following year, Bok broke off his thesis studies at Groningen with Piet van Rhijn and moved across the Atlantic to Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the invitation of Harlow Shapley, Director of Harvard College Observatory, whom he had also met at the same IAU Assembly where he met Priscilla. On September 9, 1929, two days after moving to the US, the two were married. This caused some awkwardness with their mutual superior Shapley, who regarded Priscilla as something of a protégée and was protective of her. While Bok had the greatest admiration for Shapley, it took Shapley time to build the required level of trust with Bok.[1][2](p21)

Harvard 1929–1957[edit]

The spectacular star-forming region around Eta Carinae was the subject of Bok's doctoral dissertation. This image by the VLT Survey Telescope

The Boks remained at Harvard University for almost thirty years, from 1929 until 1957, where he taught astronomy and directed the Harvard Observatory. Bart was steadily promoted through the academic ranks: he completed his Doctoral dissertation entitled "A Study of the Eta Carinae Region" in 1932, became an assistant professor in 1933, an associate professor in 1939, associate director of the Harvard Observatory by 1946, and he became a full professor in 1947 when he was appointed to the Robert Wheeler Wilson Chair in Astronomy (some sources say this happened in 1945[4]). Meanwhile, Priscilla was also conducting her own research and writing with Bart, but she was not being paid, which prompted Bart to describe Shapley as "rather cheap when it came to hiring people".[9][10](p5)

The Boks had two children: a son, John Fairfield, in 1930 and a daughter, Joyce Annetta (now Mrs John Ambruster), in 1933. Priscilla stayed at home until the children finished high school, so she published less research herself in this period. Nevertheless, she was consistently involved with supporting Bart's research and their public outreach activities often put them together and gave her some degree of recognition. When Bart became a naturalized US citizen in 1938, he shortened his first name to "Bart".[3]

Their marriage began a close scientific collaboration that would span the next four decades, in which the Royal Astronomical Society said "it is difficult and pointless to separate his achievements from hers".[1] They co-authored a number of academic papers on star clusters, stellar magnitudes, and the structure of the Milky Way. Bok was fiercely interested in the mechanical processes which form star clusters and galaxies, and his paper "The Apparent Clustering of External Galaxies" (Nature, vol. 133, p. 578) was the first to demonstrate how dissipation of a star cluster relates to its density, and so by examining the clusters in our galaxy he concluded that it cannot be older than about twenty billion years.

Their enthusiasm for explaining astronomy to the public led to them being well known: they were described as "salesmen of the Milky Way" by The Boston Globe in 1936.[2](p44) Their main work together was a definitive undergraduate textbook and popular science book, The Milky Way, "widely acclaimed as one of the most successful astronomical books ever published",[3] which had five editions over forty years following its initial publication in 1941, and was translated into many languages.[1][11] The writing of this book, begun in 1937, was shared equally – according to Bart:

Priscilla and I were working on the writing of the book on the Milky Way, and she had a little room upstairs where she did all her writing. We lived in Lexington at the time. The cleaning woman would say to her, "Upstairs you go, you've gotta go to work, don't just sit here and talk to me." And she worked very hard at it, and in the beginning we had eight chapters in the book. We agreed that I would write four chapters and she would write four chapters, and that we loved each other dearly, no problems. Then, after we had gone through this for about five or six months and the writing was getting under way we said, "Now, you take my chapters, I'll take yours, now we get a better homogeneous book." Well, Priscilla stood one day in front of the fireplace, saying, "If you want to change things that way, my part can go in the fireplace right now." She didn't do it. But that was really the most critical time that we ever had in our married life, trying to meld these two times four chapters into eight chapters. But I think it worked out, and later on we did much better. We had fun about it. But I tell you, the writing of a joint book is not always easy, if you've got strong feelings about it.[9]

The Caterpillar, a Bok Globule in the Carina Nebula. Picture by the Hubble Space Telescope.

In the 1940s, Bok first observed small, dark clouds of dense cosmic dust and gas which would later become known as Bok globules in the Milky Way. In a paper published in 1947, Bok and E.F. Reilly hypothesized that these clouds were "similar to insect's cocoons" that were undergoing gravitational collapse to form new stars and star clusters.[12] This hypothesis was difficult to verify due to the observational difficulties of establishing what was happening inside a dense dark cloud that obscured all visible light emitted from within it, but after Bok's death his ideas were confirmed when analyses of near infrared observations published in 1990 confirmed that stars were being born inside Bok globules.[13]

The Bok family also traveled to spend time setting up two international facilities on opposite sides of the world. During 1941, Bok helped to set up the Tonantzintla Observatory in Tonantizintla, Mexico.[8] In 1950, he set up the Schmidt Telescope at Harvard's Boyden Station in South Africa. While there, he and Priscilla also enjoyed the opportunity to study the southern stars, including Eta Carinae which had been the subject of Bart's doctoral dissertation.[1](p541)[8](p79)[10](p4)

Bok's record of success in setting up new observatories would guide the rest of his career. Starting in 1952 he led the efforts to fund and construct a major radio telescope facility at Harvard's Oak Ridge Observatory.[1](p540) Unusually for his time, Bok believed that the combination of radio and optical astronomy could produce exceptional benefits. Initially, this was inspired by the difficulty and unreliability of visual star counting techniques, especially when there is obscuring dust. This combined approach proved to be vital in analyzing the interstellar medium, and particularly in developing an understanding of what was happening inside Bok Globules.[1](p540)[4]

Australia 1957–1966[edit]

In 1957, the Boks moved to Australia, where Bart took up the position of Director at Mount Stromlo Observatory in the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, which he was to hold for the next nine years. His presence was a crucial factor in the development of optical astronomy in Australia, and its integration with the well-established field of radio astronomy. During his tenure, Bok established a thriving international graduate program at Stromlo which became known as "Harvard in the South",[14] obtained funds from the Prime Minister of the time, Robert Menzies, for a new telescope at Stromlo, and established a field observatory at Siding Spring.[15](p112)

He was a pioneer in the use of electronic computers for astronomical observing, and the first person to use them for any purpose at the ANU: in February 1960 he had the first one installed in the observatory.[15](p116) He was also a pioneer in taking advantage of mass media to promote astronomy: he made a television series which was broadcast on the ABC, reaching far more people than any of his predecessors dreamed of and helping to build awareness and support for astronomy in Australia.[16](p29)

By the early 1960s, Mount Stromlo had developed into one of the leading facilities for observational astronomy in the southern hemisphere.[3] However, Bok appreciated the limitations of the site of Mount Stromlo due to weather and increasing light pollution, and he initiated a site-testing program which stretched across the country. In 1962, Siding Spring Mountain was chosen for the creation of a world-class telescope facility. As Siding Spring grew, Bok threw his support behind a new project: what would become Australia's largest optical telescope, the 3.8 metres (150 in) Anglo-Australian Telescope.[15](p122)[17](p609)

This did not leave much time for astronomy research; Priscilla spent many nights at the Stromlo telescopes observing and analyzing their data. This suited her greater interest in basic observations such as determining stellar positions and providing calibrated magnitudes.[9] Their close relationship and the way their personalities complemented one another supported their scientific efforts: Priscilla's empathy balanced Bart's energetic and dynamic nature.[8][17](p608)

In the subsequent editions of their book, the Boks made major changes to accommodate the rapid progress in galactic astronomy. The approachability of the text for the general public was particularly important to Priscilla, according to Bart:

Each time where we got ready for a new edition, we used to say, "Now comes the time to appoint that committee." And we had an imaginary committee of about five people - an imaginary committee. Whenever we had a fight together as to whether something should go in or not, she would say, "Now, listen, you have your grandson on our committee. He couldn't understand this. You are writing for [astronomer] Jan Oort – and that's all right, if you want to write for Jan Oort, write another book, but don't put it in our book."[9]

Bok was a tireless promoter of astronomy to the general public, trying to keep to a routine of devoting three days each month to public lectures:

one in Canberra or near Canberra, one in a capital city, and one in the country... I accepted almost any invitation I could get to give a lecture ... my price was that if I spoke to [a group of adults] ... I would [also] address the local high school and this paid off amazingly well in a direction that had never occurred to me, because in a high school audience there is generally a nephew or a niece of a Member of Parliament, and all the Members of Parliament learned about it.[15](p111)

This ability to "sell" astronomy to the public and especially to the Members of Parliament was crucial in winning support for such huge, and expensive, projects as the Anglo-Australian Observatory against competing scientific priorities. In the end, he did not get to see it completed; the formal agreement to construct the AAO was reached the year after he and Priscilla left Australia to return to the US.

Return to the US 1966–1983[edit]

In 1966, the Boks moved back to the US, where Bart took up the roles of Head of the Department of Astronomy at the University of Arizona and Director of Steward Observatory, posts which he held until 1970. He was largely responsible for the construction of the 90 inches (2.3 m) telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory, and oversaw a doubling of the university's staff and growth in the graduate student program until by 1970 it was ranked fifth in the US, and Steward was regarded as "one of the world's premier astronomical research institutions."[1](p541)[16](p33)

From 1970, when he left his positions at Steward University and the University of Arizona, Bok became more actively involved in national and global organizations for professional astronomers. In 1970, he became Vice-President of the Executive Committee of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), and in 1973 he was appointed for a second three-year term in the same position.[18] Overlapping with this, he also served and as president of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) from 1972 to 1974.[19]

Priscilla suffered a stroke in 1972; her health declined in the following years, and Bok resigned his positions with the IAU and the AAS in 1974 and dedicated himself to her care. She died of a heart attack in November 1975.[8]

In 1975 Bok coauthored the statement Objections to Astrology, which was endorsed by 186 professional astronomers, astrophysicists, and other scientists, including nineteen winners of the Nobel Prize.[20] The statement was published in The Humanist and copies were sent to every major newspaper in the US. This led to the formation of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (now called the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry), of which he was a founding Fellow.[21] In 2000, Bok was voted by readers of Skeptical Inquirer magazine as one of the "outstanding skeptics of the twentieth century".[22]

Bok continued as an emeritus professor at the University of Arizona, and he participated in or led several groups to view solar eclipses, including a trip to the eclipse near Bratsk in Siberia in July 1981 and his last eclipse trip to what he called his "spiritual home" of Java to view a totality that passed near the town of Salatiga in June 1983.

Bok died of a heart attack at his home in Tucson, Arizona a little more than a month after that final trip. His body was bequeathed to the college of medicine at the University of Arizona.


Honorary appointments
Bok crater on the Moon
Named after him
Memorial awards

Selected publications[edit]


  1. ^ For (1983) Bok, the naming citation reads in part: "This is the first minor planet discovered with the 229-cm telescope of the Stewart Observatory to be numbered. It is named for the Boks in recognition of their role in bringing the large reflector of the Steward Observatory into operation and for their support of the astrometric work on comets, minor planets, and satellites. This minor planet was at far southern declination at discovery (and observations at Wellington were important in obtaining a reliable orbit). This is also in fitting association with the Boks, who have devoted much effort to study of the structure of the southern Milky Way and to encouragement of astronomy in the Southern Hemisphere."


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Lada, C. J. (1987). "Obituary - BOK, Bart". Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society. 28 (4): 539. Bibcode:1987QJRAS..28..539L. 
  2. ^ a b c d Levy, David H. (1993). The man who sold the Milky Way: a biography of Bart Bok. The University of Arizona Press. ISBN 0-8165-1149-7. 
  3. ^ a b c d Robertson, Peter (2007). "Biography – Bok, Bart Jan (1906–1983)". National Centre of Biography at the Australian National University. Volume 17. Retrieved 11 July 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c Heeschen, David S. (December 1983). "Bart J. Bok". Physics Today. 36 (12): 73. Bibcode:1983PhT....36Q..73H. doi:10.1063/1.2915407. 
  5. ^ Millman, Peter M.. (1984). "Bart Jan Bok, 1906–1983". Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. p. 7. Retrieved 3 August 2014. 
  6. ^ Briggs, Eric. "Asteroid (1983) Bok". The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Retrieved 15 July 2014. 
  7. ^ Hockey, Thomas (2009). The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers. Springer Publishing. ISBN 978-0-387-31022-0. Retrieved August 22, 2012. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f Graham, J. A; Wade, C. M. & Price, R. M. (1994). Biographical Memoirs V.64. 500 Fifth St. N.W. Washington, D.C. 20001, USA: National Academy of Sciences (NAS). pp. 72–97. 
  9. ^ a b c d e DeVorkin, D. (May 15, 1978). "Oral History Transcript—Dr. Bart J. Bok". Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. Retrieved February 7, 2012. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i Millman, Peter M. (February 1984). "Obituary - BOK, Bart-Jan 1906–1983". Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (journal code "JRASC"). 78 (1): 3–7. Bibcode:1984JRASC..78....3M. Retrieved 15 July 2014. 
  11. ^ Gascoigne, Ben (August 1983). "Bok, Bart Jan (1906–1983)". ANU Reporter. Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. p. 6. Retrieved February 7, 2012. 
  12. ^ Bok, Bart J.; Reilly, Edith F. (March 1947), "Small Dark Nebulae", Astrophysical Journal, 105: 255, Bibcode:1947ApJ...105..255B, doi:10.1086/144901 
  13. ^ Yun, Joao Lin; Clemens, Dan P. (December 1990), "Star formation in small globules – Bart Bok was correct", Astrophysical Journal Letters, 365: L73, Bibcode:1990ApJ...365L..73Y, doi:10.1086/185891 
  14. ^ Frame, Tom; Faulkner, Don (2003). Stromlo: An Australian Observatory. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. p. 132. ISBN 9781865086590. 
  15. ^ a b c d Bhathal, Ragbir; Sutherland, Ralph; Butcher, Harvey (2013). Mt Stromlo Observatory: from Bush Observatory to the Nobel Prize. CSIRO Publishing. ISBN 9781486300761. 
  16. ^ a b Bessell, Mike. "Bart Bok: The man who sold the Milky Way" (PDF). Bok lecture 2011. Retrieved 11 July 2014. 
  17. ^ a b Whiteoak, J. B., CSIRO Department of Radiophysics (1984). "Student Memories of Bart Bok – an Astronomical Godfather". Proceedings of the Astronomical Society of Australia. 5 (4). Bibcode:1984PASAu...5..608W. 
  18. ^ "Member details: Bart J. Bok". International Astronomical Union. Retrieved 6 July 2014. 
  19. ^ a b Past Officers and Councilors, American Astronomical Society, retrieved 2013-03-16 
  20. ^ Bok, Bart J.; Jerome, Lawrence E.; Kurtz, Paul (September–October 1975). "Objections to Astrology: A Statement by 186 Leading Scientists". The Humanist. 35 (5): 4–6. , cited in Curd, Martin; Psillos, Stathis, eds. (2014). The Routledge companion to philosophy of science (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge. ISBN 9781135011086. 
  21. ^ Stein, Gordon, PhD (1996). The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Amherst New York: Prometheus Books. pp. 168–180. ISBN 978-1573920216. , cited in "Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP)". Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Retrieved 10 August 2014. 
  22. ^ "The Ten Outstanding Skeptics of the Twentieth Century". Skeptical Inquirer (Volume 24.1). January–February 2000. 
  23. ^ Past Officers and Councilors, American Astronomical Society, retrieved 2013-03-16. 
  24. ^ "Bart Jan Bok (1906 - 1983)". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 17 July 2015. 
  25. ^ "La Medaille de L'ADION" (in French). Retrieved 15 July 2014. 
  26. ^ "Jansky Prize". National Radio Astronomy Observatory, a facility of the National Science Foundation. Retrieved 15 July 2014. 
  27. ^ "The Bruce Medalists: Bartholomeus Jan Bok, 1977 Bruce Medalist". Bruce Medal page. Retrieved 15 July 2014. 
  28. ^ "Henry Norris Russell Lectureship". American Astronomical Society. Retrieved 15 July 2014. 
  29. ^ "Past Recipients of the Klumpke-Roberts Award". Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Retrieved 15 July 2014. 
  30. ^ "Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature: Planetary Names". International Astronomical Union (IAU) Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN). Retrieved February 7, 2012. 
  31. ^ Schmadel, Lutz D. (2012). Dictionary of minor planet names (6th rev. and enl. ed.). Berlin: Springer. p. 153. ISBN 9783642297182. 
  32. ^ "The Bok Prize". The Astronomical Society of Australia Inc. Retrieved 9 July 2016. 
  33. ^ "The Bok Prize". Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 30 June 2014. 
  34. ^ "ASP Annual Awards". Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Retrieved February 7, 2012. 
  35. ^ "Astronomical Society of the Pacific Presents Priscilla and Bart Bok Awards to Two High School Seniors at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair". Astronomical Society of the Pacific. July 21, 2009. Retrieved February 7, 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]