George O. Abell

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George O. Abell
George Ogden Abell

(1927-03-27)March 27, 1927
DiedOctober 7, 1983(1983-10-07) (aged 56)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
EducationB.S. (1951),
M.S. (1952)
PhD (1957)
Alma materCalifornia Institute of Technology (B.S., M.S., and PhD)
SpousePhyllis (second marriage)
Children2 sons (first marriage)
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of California, Los Angeles
Doctoral advisorDonald Osterbrock
Doctoral studentsEdwin C. Krupp

George Ogden Abell (March 27, 1927 – October 7, 1983) was an American educator. Teaching at UCLA, priorly he worked as a research astronomer, administrator, as a popularizer of science and of education, and as a skeptic. He earned his B.S. in 1951, his M.S. in 1952 and his Ph.D. in 1957, all from the California Institute of Technology. He was a Ph.D. student under Donald Osterbrock. His astronomical career began as a tour guide at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. Abell made great contributions to astronomical knowledge which resulted from his work during and after the National Geographic Society - Palomar Observatory Sky Survey, especially concerning clusters of galaxies and planetary nebulae. A galaxy, an asteroid, a periodic comet, and an observatory are all named in his honor. His teaching career extended beyond the campus of UCLA to the high school student oriented Summer Science Program, and educational television. He not only taught about science but also about what is not science. He was an originating member of the Committee on Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal now known as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

Early life[edit]

George Ogden Abell was born in Los Angeles on March 27, 1927, to Theodore Curtis Abell and Annamarie (Ogden) Abell.[1] Theodore Abell was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, in 1890, was a Unitarian minister, and was one of the original members of the Hollywood Humanist Society. Annamarie was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1896, and studied to be a librarian, worked for a short while as a librarian but eventually became a social worker. George Ogden Abell was named for his mother's brother, George Ogden.[2]

Theodore and Annamarie divorced when Abell was 6 years old. Annamarie and son went to live with her father, also George Ogden, who was an author of western novels. Theodore maintained regular contact with Abell and took him to many museums and to Griffith Observatory and planetarium when he was about 8, soon after it opened. This prompted Abell to start reading books on astronomy. Abell attended Van Nuys High School where he achieved all As in all math and science courses that he took.[2]

As a youth, Abell held many part-time jobs, he had a newspaper delivery as well as mail route, worked in a bowling alley, a restaurant, grocery store, and did home maintenance work.[2]

Military service[edit]

Abell enlisted in the US Army Air Corps after he graduated from high school in 1945 in the waning days of World War II. He took the tests that qualified him for training as a pilot, navigator or bombardier, but the war ended and those schools were shut down before he could begin training.[2]

Instead, he went to weather school at Chanute Field in Illinois. On finishing that, he had the option of staying at Chanute Field to attend forecasting school, but that would have entailed becoming an officer and staying in the Army longer. Since the war was over, getting out of the Army as soon as possible seemed more important to him, so he opted to forego forecasting school. Instead he was sent to Japan, where he served as an Air Corps weatherman for six months before being discharged after 18 months of total service.[2]


Upon leaving the Air Corps, Abell returned to Los Angeles and worked as a gas station attendant while waiting to start school at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). At Caltech, Abell studied physics his freshman year. However, the next year Caltech inaugurated its astronomy department and as a sophomore he switched majors to astronomy. As an undergraduate student, Abell lived in Caltech's Fleming House and bowled on the Fleming House bowling team. Abell participated in the Drama Club, and was president of the club for one year. He also wrote the music column for Caltech's weekly newspaper, The California Tech, and worked at Griffith Observatory as a guide while an undergrad student.[2]

Abell received his Bachelor of Science degree in astronomy in 1951. He then continued at Caltech for graduate studies in astronomy. He received a Master of Science in 1952 and a Ph.D. in 1957. He was the first Ph.D. student of Donald Osterbrock. During his graduate student days he worked at Griffith Observatory as a lecturer.[2]


Abell 2261 is one galaxy cluster from his catalogue of clusters of galaxies, collected during the National Geographic Society - Palomar Observatory Sky Survey.

Palomar sky survey[edit]

Abell's first professional astronomical occupation came as a Caltech grad student when he was an observer on the National Geographic Society – Palomar Observatory Sky Survey. Several scientific advances came out of this work including,[3][4][5]

An extended version of the clusters of galaxies catalogue was published after Abell's death in 1987 under the authorship of Abell, Harold G. Corwin and Ronald P. Olowin. This extended catalog includes clusters seen from the southern hemisphere, lists approximately 4,000 clusters of galaxies and includes thirty members with a redshift up to z = 0.2. (See List of Abell clusters.)



Abell taught at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) for 17 years[4] where he was known as an outstanding and brilliant teacher. He believed that the cornerstone of teaching science is to present how and why the facts are known to be facts; and not in the mere presentation of facts that might amaze, sensationalize, entertain but not enlighten the listener.[5]

Abell chaired the UCLA Astronomy Department for seven years 1968 to 1975. He also served on several university committees and commissions, such as,[5]

  • Faculty Senate
    • Committee on Parking and Transportation (1959)
    • Chairman of the Graduate Council (1964-1965)
    • Chairman of the Committee on Athletics (1968-1969)
    • Chairman of the Los Angeles Division (1972-1973)

During the period of student unrest in the 1960s Abell was an active member and organizer of the unofficial Committee for Responsible University Government. This was due to his belief that faculty and administration standards were weakening as a result of the unrest.[5]

Summer science program[edit]

Abell was a leader and teacher in the Summer Science Program for talented high school students. At Thatcher School in Ojai, California, he and others taught college-level physics, mathematics and astronomy to these students. A number of them went on to pursue distinguished careers in science.[3][5] One such is Ed Krupp the long-time director of Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.[2]

Other teaching methods[edit]

Abell also lectured at other venues, specifically at many small colleges that lacked astronomy departments.[3] He also strove to bring the stories of science and astronomy to the people through public lectures.[4][5]

He wrote several books including Exploration of the Universe a textbook widely used in undergraduate astronomy courses.[10]

He helped produce educational TV programs/series such as Project Universe and Understanding Space and Time. He also appeared in some of these as himself, an astronomer.[3] Project Universe was a 30 part introductory course on astronomy that featured Ed Krupp director of Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. Abell and Julian Schwinger created Understanding Space and Time in 16 parts to explain in layman's terms celestial mechanics, relativity, and the large scale structure of the universe.[5]


Abell was not just a teacher of astronomy and science, he also taught about popular topics with no scientific evidence. He was a debunker of astrology, pseudoscience, and the occult.[3][5] In a tribute to Abell in The Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, Lawrence H. Aller wrote,

As many astronomers do not, George recognized that the great enemy of enlightenment was not just ignorance, but the delusions and gullibility of vast masses of humanity and their willingness – nay, eagerness – to be taken in by frauds ranging from pseudoscientific claptrap (“Worlds in Collision”, the Bermuda Triangle, ancient astronauts, the Atlantis myth, etc.) to astrology, the occult arts and witchcraft. What is astonishing is the inability of many otherwise literate people to recognize the strong hold of superstition upon them and their penchant for accepting the claims of charlatans at face value. Given these conditions, the magnitude of the task of combating astrology, witchcraft, and pseudoscience is staggering.[3]

His opposition to such forces took many forms, in writings, and in television appearances. He was one of the co-founders of the Committee on Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal now known as CSI, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.[3][5]

Abell was a contributor to the organization's journal Skeptical Inquirer.[5]

Astronomical namesakes[edit]

There are several astronomical bodies named for George Abell, as well as an earthbound observatory.[b]


Personal life[edit]

Abell was married twice. The first marriage occurred right after his graduation from Caltech. His first wife was a school teacher and they had two sons together named Anthony and Jonathan.[4] This marriage ended after 19 years with the sons remaining with their father.[2] Abell's second wife, Phyllis, was a painter who studied three years at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art but did not graduate.[2]

Abell enjoyed many hobbies during his lifetime such as, softball, bowling, music concerts and grand opera (on which he was considered an authority), record collecting, and literature. He was an avid baseball fan, frequently in attendance at Los Angeles Dodgers games.[2][3][5]

Abell died at home on October 7, 1983, after suffering a heart attack.[4]

Selected published works[edit]

Journal articles[edit]

He was slated to take over as editor of the Astronomical Journal effective January 1, 1984, but his death occurred before that appointment became effective.[5]


See also[edit]



  1. ^ This conclusion later confirmed by many investigations.[3]
  2. ^ With the exception of The Abell Galaxy, this list contains only items actually named for Abell. It does not contain items listed in either the Abell Catalog of clusters of galaxies or the Abell List of planetary nebulae. It is customary to refer to those items as Abell and the correct number from the catalog or list. Those designations do not indicate the items are named for Abell. Only that they are contained in the catalog/list that he compiled.
  3. ^ SSP remembers his service through its Abell Scholarship Fund.


  1. ^ Hetherington, Norriss S. "Abell, George Ogden". American National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.1302193. Retrieved August 22, 2022.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Weart, Spencer (8 December 2014). "Oral Histories, George Abell". AIP, American Institute of Physics. American Institute of Physics. Archived from the original on 22 April 2016. Retrieved 8 April 2017.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Aller, L. H. (June 1989). "George Ogden Abell (1927-1983)". Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society. 30 (2): 283. Bibcode:1989QJRAS..30..283A.
  4. ^ a b c d e f "Dr. George O. Abell, 57, Dies; Observer of Galaxy Clusters". New York Times. UPI. October 8, 1983. Archived from the original on 19 January 2017.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Epps, H.; Popper, D.; Aller, L. "George O. Abell, Astronomy: Los Angeles". calisphere. California Digital Library. Retrieved 10 April 2017.
  6. ^ Abell, George O. (1958). "The distribution of rich clusters of galaxies. A catalogue of 2712 rich clusters found on the National Geographic Society Palomar Observatory Sky Survey" (PDF). The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series. 3: 211–88. Bibcode:1958ApJS....3..211A. doi:10.1086/190036. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2018-07-21. Retrieved 2019-08-27.
  7. ^ Abell, G. O. (1955). "Globular Clusters and Planetary Nebulae Discovered on the National Geographic Society-Palomar Observatory Sky Survey". Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. 67 (397): 258. Bibcode:1955PASP...67..258A. doi:10.1086/126815.
  8. ^ Abell, G. O. (April 1966). "Properties of Some Old Planetary Nebulae". Astrophysical Journal. 144: 259. Bibcode:1966ApJ...144..259A. doi:10.1086/148602.
  9. ^ Kronk, Gary W. "52P/Harrington-Abell". Archived from the original on 2 February 2017. Retrieved 9 April 2017.
  10. ^ Shigehisa, Osao (1983). "George Abell 1926-1983". Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada Newsletter. 77: L85. Bibcode:1983JRASC..77L..85S. Retrieved 10 April 2017.
  11. ^ "(3449) Abell = 1978 VR9 = 1983 TQ1". IAU Minor Planet Center. International Astronomical Union. Retrieved 16 April 2017.
  12. ^ Norton, Andrew; Jarvis, Johanna. "The George Abell Observatory". The Open University. Open University. Archived from the original on 14 March 2017. Retrieved 16 April 2017.
  13. ^ "American Astronomical Society". Past Officers and Councilors. American Astronomical Society. Archived from the original on 9 April 2016. Retrieved 17 April 2017.
  14. ^ Fraknoi, Andrew; Flynn, Jack; Stern, Al. "Presidents of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific". Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Archived from the original on 22 March 2016. Retrieved 17 April 2017.
  15. ^ "ASP Past Officers and Board Members". Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Archived from the original on 2 February 2017. Retrieved 17 April 2017.
  16. ^ "The "Teaching Opportunity of a Lifetime" at SSP" (PDF). The Summer Science Program. Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy. Archived (PDF) from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 17 April 2017.

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