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Harlow Shapley

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Harlow Shapley
BornNovember 2, 1885
DiedOctober 20, 1972(1972-10-20) (aged 86)
Alma materUniversity of Missouri, Princeton University
Known forDetermining correct position of Sun within Milky Way Galaxy; head of Harvard College Observatory (1921–1952)
Children5, including
Scientific career
Doctoral advisorHenry Norris Russell
Doctoral studentsCecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Carl Seyfert
Other notable studentsGeorges Lemaître

Harlow Shapley (November 2, 1885 – October 20, 1972) was an American scientist, head of the Harvard College Observatory (1921–1952), and political activist during the latter New Deal and Fair Deal.[1][2]

Shapley used Cepheid variable stars to estimate the size of the Milky Way Galaxy and the Sun's position within it.[3] In 1953 he proposed his "liquid water belt" theory, now known as the concept of a habitable zone.[4]


Shapley (first standing from the right) at a Science Service board meeting in 1941
Members of the Independent Voters Committee of the Arts and Sciences for Roosevelt visit FDR at the White House (October 1944). From left: Van Wyck Brooks, Hannah Dorner, Jo Davidson, Jan Kiepura, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Gish, Dr. Harlow Shapley
Progressive Citizens of America members, 1947. From left, seated, Henry A. Wallace, Elliott Roosevelt; standing, Dr. Harlow Shapley, Jo Davidson

Shapley was born on a farm five miles outside Nashville, Missouri, to Willis and Sarah (née Stowell) Shapley.[5] He went to school in Jasper, Missouri, but not beyond elementary school.[6] He worked as a journalist[7] after studying at home and covering crime stories as a newspaper reporter for the Daily Sun in Chanute, Kansas, and intermittently for the Times of Joplin, Missouri.[3] In Chanute, he found a Carnegie library and started reading and studying on his own.[3] Shapley returned to complete a six-year high school program in 1.5 years, graduating as class valedictorian.[3]

In 1907, Shapley went to the University of Missouri to study journalism. When he learned that the opening of the School of Journalism had been postponed for a year, he decided to study the first subject he came across in the course directory. Rejecting Archaeology, which Shapley later claimed he could not pronounce, he chose the next subject, Astronomy.[8]

Early years


After graduation, Shapley received a fellowship to Princeton University for graduate work, where he studied under Henry Norris Russell and used the period-luminosity relation for Cepheid variable stars (discovered by Henrietta Swan Leavitt) to determine distances to globular clusters. He was instrumental in moving astronomy away from the idea that Cepheids were spectroscopic binaries, and toward the concept that they were pulsators.[9]

He realized that the Milky Way Galaxy was far larger than previously believed, and that the Sun's place in the galaxy was in a nondescript location. This discovery supports the Copernican principle, according to which the Earth is not at the center of our Solar System, our galaxy, nor our Universe.

The Great Debate of 1920


Shapley participated in the "Great Debate" with Heber D. Curtis on the nature of nebulae and galaxies and the size of the Universe. The debate took place on April 26, 1920, in the hall of the United States National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC. Shapley took the side that spiral nebulae (what are now called galaxies) are inside our Milky Way, while Curtis took the side that the spiral nebulae are "island universes" far outside our own Milky Way and comparable in size and nature to our own Milky Way. This issue and debate are the start of extragalactic astronomy, while the detailed arguments and data, often with ambiguities, appeared together in 1921.[10]

Characteristic issues were whether Adriaan van Maanen had measured rotation in a spiral nebula, the nature and luminosity of the exploding novae and supernovae seen in spiral galaxies, and the size of our own Milky Way. However, Shapley's actual talk and argument given during the Great Debate were completely different from the published paper. Historian Michael Hoskin says "His decision was to treat the National Academy of Sciences to an address so elementary that much of it was necessarily uncontroversial", with Shapley's motivation being only to impress a delegation from Harvard who were interviewing him for a possible offer as the next Director of Harvard College Observatory.[11] With the default by Shapley, Curtis won the debate. The astronomical issues were soon resolved in favor of Curtis' position when Edwin Hubble discovered Cepheid variable stars in the Andromeda Galaxy.[12][13]

At the time of the debate, Shapley was working at the Mount Wilson Observatory, where he had been hired by George Ellery Hale. After the debate, however, he was hired to replace the recently deceased Edward Charles Pickering as director of the Harvard College Observatory (HCO).

Conversion to Hubble's ideas


He is also known to have opposed Edwin Hubble's observations that there are additional galaxies in the universe other than the Milky Way. Shapley fiercely critiqued Hubble and regarded his work as junk science. However, after he received a letter from Hubble showing Hubble's observed light curve of V1, a Cepheid variable star in the Andromeda galaxy, he withdrew his criticism. He reportedly told a colleague, "Here is the letter that destroyed my universe." He also encouraged Hubble to write a paper for a joint meeting of the American Astronomical Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science.[12] Hubble's findings went on to fundamentally reshape the scientific view of the universe.[13]

Despite having earlier argued strongly against the idea of galaxies other than our Milky Way, Shapley went on to make significant progress in the research of the distribution of galaxies, working between 1925 and 1932. In this time period, with the Harvard College Observatory, he worked to map 76,000 galaxies. One of the first astronomers to believe in the existence of galaxy superclusters, Shapley later discovered a large and distant example, which was later named the Shapley Supercluster. He estimated the distance to this supercluster at 231 Mpc, which is within 15% of the currently accepted value.[citation needed]

Harvard College Observatory


He served as director of the HCO from 1921 to 1952. During this time, he hired Cecilia Payne, who, in 1925, became the first person to earn a doctorate at Radcliffe College in the field of astronomy, for work done at Harvard College Observatory.

From 1941 he was on the original standing committee of the Foundation for the Study of Cycles. He also served on the board of trustees of Science Service, now known as Society for Science & the Public, from 1935 to 1971.[citation needed]



In the 1940s, Shapley helped found government funded scientific associations, including the National Science Foundation. He shares credit with British biochemist Joseph Needham for the addition of the "S" in UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).[14][15]

On November 14, 1946, Shapley appeared under subpoena by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA) in his role as member of the Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions (ICCASP), which HCUA described as a "major political arm of the Russophile left". It had opposed re-election of U.S. Representative Joseph William Martin Jr. during mid-term elections that year and was asked to answer questions about the ICCASP's Massachusetts' chapter. HCUA committee chairman John E. Rankin commented about Shapley's attitude, "I have never seen a witness treat a committee with more contempt" and considered contempt of Congress charges. Shapley accused HCUA of "Gestapo methods" and advocated for its abolition, saying that it had made "civic cowards of many citizens" by pursuing the "bogey of political radicalism."[2][16]

A few weeks later, in early 1947, Shapley became president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). At the time, the AAAS's choice appeared to be a "rebuke" of HCUA and a positive championing of scientists.[2] In his inaugural address, Shapley referred to the danger of the "genius maniac" and proposed the elimination of "all primates that show any evidence or signs of genius or even talent".[17] Other global threats he listed were: drugs that suppressed the desire for sex; boredom; world war with weapons of mass destruction; a plague epidemic.[18]

In March 1949, Shapley chaired the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. It was sponsored by the National Council of Arts, Sciences and Professions. Arch-conservative William F. Buckley, Jr., authored a 1951 book, God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of "Academic Freedom," wherein, in the eve of McCarthyism, he attacked liberalism at Yale and academia in general. In the book, Buckley cited Shapley's participation and averred that event was "Communist-inspired" and "Russian-dominated."[19]

In 1950, Shapley was instrumental in organizing a campaign in academia against Worlds in Collision by Russian expatriate psychiatrist Immanuel Velikovsky. Scientists generally considered this controversial US bestseller to be pseudoscience.

Global policy


He was one of the signatories of the agreement to convene a convention for drafting a world constitution.[20][21] As a result, for the first time in human history, a World Constituent Assembly convened to draft and adopt the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.[22]

Personal life


Shapley married Martha Betz (1890–1981) in April 1914, whom he had met in Missouri. She assisted her husband in astronomical research both at Mount Wilson and at Harvard Observatory. She wrote numerous articles on eclipsing stars and other astronomical objects.

They had one daughter, editor and writer Mildred Shapley Matthews; and four sons. These included Lloyd Shapley, a mathematician and economist who won a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 2012,[2] and Willis Shapley, who became a Senior Executive Service leader at NASA.[23] His eldest granddaughter, June Lorraine Matthews, became a physicist.

Although Shapley was an agnostic, he was greatly interested in religion.[24][25]

Shapley died in a nursing home in Boulder, Colorado on October 20, 1972, shortly before his 87th birthday.[2]

Awards and honors



Shapley Supercluster map

Named after him are:

Before the anti-communist phrase "Better Dead Than Red" became popular during McCarthyism in the 1950s, Shapley said in a 1947 speech entitled "Peace or Pieces" that "A slave world is not worth preserving. Better be lifeless like the cold moon, or primitively vegetal like desolate Mars, than be a planet populated by social robots."[2]



Shapley wrote many books on astronomy and the sciences. Among these was Source Book in Astronomy (New York: McGraw–Hill, 1929, co-written with Helen E. Howarth, also on the staff of the Harvard College Observatory), the first of the publisher's series of source books in the history of the sciences.

In 1953, he wrote the "Liquid Water Belt" which gave scientific credence to the ecosphere theory of Hubertus Strughold.[35]

In his 1957 book "Of Stars and Men", Shapley proposed the term Metagalaxies for what are now called superclusters.[citation needed]

Shapley attended Institute on Religion in an Age of Science conferences at Star Island and was the editor of the book Science Ponders Religion (1960).[36]


  • Shapley, Harlow (1972). Galaxies. The Harvard books on astronomy. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674340510.
  • Shapley, Harlow (1969). Through Rugged Ways to the Stars. Scribner.
  • Shapley, Harlow (1967). Beyond the Observatory. Scribner.[37]
  • Shapley, Harlow (1964). The View from a Distant Star: Man's Future in the Universe. Dell Publishing, Co.
  • Shapley, Harlow, ed. (1960). Source book in astronomy, 1900–1950. Source books in the history of the sciences. Harvard University Press.[38]
  • Shapley, Harlow (1958). Of Stars and Men: The Human Response to an Expanding Universe. Beacon Press.[39]
  • Shapley, Harlow (1958). A Census of Northern Galaxies in an Area of 3600 Square Degrees. Harvard College Observatory. Annals, v. 88, no. 7. Beacon Press.
  • Shapley, Harlow, ed. (1953). Climatic Change: Evidence, Causes, and Effects. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Retrieved June 11, 2022.[40][41]
  • Shapley, Harlow (1948). Galactic and Extragalactic Studies, XVIII. Volume 36. National Academy of Sciences.
  • Shapley, Harlow (1936). Time and Its Mysteries. Series 1:Lectures given on the James Arthur Foundation, New York University. New York University Press.
  • Shapley, Harlow (1934). The Angular Diameters of Bright Galaxies. The Observatory.
  • Shapley, Harlow (1930). Star Clusters. New York: McGraw-Hill. Retrieved June 11, 2022.
  • Shapley, Harlow (1930). Flights from Chaos: A Survey of Material Systems from Atoms to Galaxies, Adapted from Lectures at the College of the City of New York, Class of 1872 Foundation. Whittlesey House, McGraw–Hill Book Company, Inc. Bibcode:1930fcsm.book.....S.
  • Shapley, Harlow (1926). Starlight. George H. Doran Co.
  • Shapley, Harlow (1924). Descriptions and Positions of 2,829 New Nebulae ... Harvard College Observatory. Annals, v. 85, no. 6. The Observatory.



See also



  1. ^ Goldberg, Leo (January 1973). "Obituary: Harlow Shapley". Physics Today. 26 (1): 107–108. Bibcode:1973PhT....26a.107G. doi:10.1063/1.3127920.
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Dr. Harlow Shapley Dies at 86. Dean of American Astronomers. Dr. Harlow Shapley, Dean of American Astronomers, Dies at 86". The New York Times. October 21, 1972. Retrieved January 15, 2014.
  3. ^ a b c d Bart J. Bok. Harlow Shapely 1885–1972 A Biographical Memoir. National Academy of Sciences
  4. ^ Richard J. Hugget, Geoecology: An Evolutionary Approach. p. 10
  5. ^ Hockey, Thomas (2009). The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers. Springer Publishing. ISBN 978-0-387-31022-0. Retrieved August 22, 2012.
  6. ^ Bok, Bart (1978). Harlow Shapley, 1885–1972, A Biographical Memoir. National Academy of Sciences.
  7. ^ "Obituary of Harlow Shapley". Nature Vol 240 (1972). pp. 429–430.
  8. ^ Timothy Ferris (1977). The Red Limit: The Search for the Edge of the Universe. William Morrow & Co. ISBN 978-0-688-03176-3.
  9. ^ "On the Nature and Cause of Cepheid Variation," Shapley, H., Astrophysical Journal, 40, 448 (1914)
  10. ^ "The Scale of the Universe" Shapley, H. and Curtis, H. D., Bulletin of the National Research Council, 2, 169, pp. 171–217 (1921)
  11. ^ "The 'Great Debate': What Really Happened" Hoskin, M., Journal for the History of Astronomy, 7, 169 (1976)
  12. ^ a b "Hubble Views the Star that Changed the Universe". HubbleSite NewsCenter. Archived from the original on March 31, 2016. Retrieved May 23, 2011.
  13. ^ a b Bartusiak, Marcia (2009). The Day We Found the Universe (Hardcover) (1st ed.). Pantheon. ISBN 978-0375424298.
  14. ^ Mather, Kirtley Fletcher (1888–1978) (Summer 1971). "Harlow Shapley, Man of the World". The American Scholar. 40 (3). Phi Beta Kappa Society: 475–481. JSTOR 41209873. Retrieved April 22, 2021 ("it was Shapley who almost singlehandedly prevented the deletion of the "S" from UNESCO." p. 478){{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: postscript (link). ISSN 0003-0937 (publication); OCLC 38258794, 5543369091 (article).
  15. ^ Archibald, Gail, PhD (2006). "Part I: Setting the Scene, 1945–1965: How the 'S' Came to Be In UNESCO". Sixty Years of Science at UNESCO, 1945–2005 (PDF). Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. pp. 36–40. Retrieved April 22, 2021 – via UNESCO Asia-Pacific Centre of Education for International Understanding (APCEIU) in Seoul.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) OCLC 122262620 (all editions).
  16. ^ Goodman, Walter (1968). The Committee: The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. p. 187. ISBN 9780374126889. Retrieved January 7, 2018.
  17. ^ "He's anti-genius". Sarasota Herald-Tribune. January 9, 1947. p. 9.
  18. ^ "People: Inside Dopester". Time. January 6, 1947. Archived from the original on February 3, 2011.
  19. ^ Buckley, William F. Jr. (December 1951) [September 1951]. "Chapter 4: The Supersitions of 'Academic Freedom'". God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of "Academic Freedom (4th printing). Chicago: Henry Regnery Company. pp. 136–137. ISBN 9780895266927. Retrieved April 22, 2021 – via Internet Archive.. OCLC 189667 (all editions).
  20. ^ "Letters from Thane Read asking Helen Keller to sign the World Constitution for world peace. 1961". Helen Keller Archive. American Foundation for the Blind. Retrieved July 1, 2023.
  21. ^ "Letter from World Constitution Coordinating Committee to Helen, enclosing current materials". Helen Keller Archive. American Foundation for the Blind. Retrieved July 3, 2023.
  22. ^ "Preparing earth constitution | Global Strategies & Solutions | The Encyclopedia of World Problems". The Encyclopedia of World Problems | Union of International Associations (UIA). Retrieved July 15, 2023.
  23. ^ "Mr. Willis Shapley" (PDF). NASA History Newsletter. No. 3. NASA. October 1, 1965. Retrieved July 18, 2019.
  24. ^ Kragh, Helge (2004). Matter and spirit in the Universe: scientific and religious preludes to modern cosmology. OECD Publishing. p. 237. ISBN 978-1-86094-469-7. Shapley was not committed to any particular model of the expanding universe, but he did have strong opinions about the relationship between astronomy and religion. A confirmed agnostic, in the postwar period he often participated in science-religion discussions, and in 1960 he edited a major work on the subject — Science Ponders Religion.
  25. ^ I.S. Glass (2006). "Harlow Shapley: Defining our galaxy". Revolutionaries of the Cosmos: The Astro-physicists. Oxford University Press. pp. 265–66. ISBN 9780198570998. Although a declared agnostic, Shapley was deeply interested in religion and was a genuinely 'religious' person from a philosophical point of view. 'I never go to church', he told Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, 'I am too religious.
  26. ^ "Harlow Shapley". American Academy of Arts & Sciences. February 9, 2023. Retrieved September 8, 2023.
  27. ^ "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved September 8, 2023.
  28. ^ "Harlow Shapley". www.nasonline.org. Retrieved September 8, 2023.
  29. ^ "Henry Draper Medal". National Academy of Sciences. Archived from the original on January 26, 2013. Retrieved February 19, 2011.
  30. ^ "Past Recipients of the Rumford Prize". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Archived from the original on September 27, 2012. Retrieved February 19, 2011.
  31. ^ "Winners of the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society". Royal Astronomical Society. Archived from the original on May 25, 2011. Retrieved February 19, 2011.
  32. ^ "Past Winners of the Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal". Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Archived from the original on July 21, 2011. Retrieved February 19, 2011.
  33. ^ "Harlow Shapley Wins Pius XI Prize. Harvard Observatory Chief Receives Astronomy Award of Pontifical Academy". The New York Times. December 1, 1941. Retrieved January 15, 2014. The Pope today attended the inauguration of the new academic year of the Pontifical Academy...
  34. ^ "Grants, Prizes and Awards". American Astronomical Society. Archived from the original on December 22, 2010. Retrieved February 19, 2011.
  35. ^ James F. Kasting, How to find a habitable planet. p. 127
  36. ^ "Varieties of Belief" (Review of Science Ponders Religion) by Edmund Fuller, December 18, 1960, The New York Times.
  37. ^ McCarthy, Martin F. (April 1969). "Review of Beyond the Observatory by Harlow Shapley". Physics Today. 22 (4): 105–106. doi:10.1063/1.3035499.
  38. ^ Shapley, Harlow (1962). "Review of Source Book in Astronomy 1900–1950 edited by Harlow Shapley". Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. 56: 270. Bibcode:1962JRASC..56..270S.
  39. ^ Sitterly, Bancroft W. (1964). "Review of Man in the Universe: The View from a Distant Star. Man's future in the universe by Harlow Shapley". Science. 143 (3611): 1160. doi:10.1126/science.143.3611.1160.a. S2CID 239847309.
  40. ^ McLaughlin, Dean B. (1954). "Review of Climatic Change: Evidence, Causes, and Effects edited by Harlow Shapley". Science. 119 (3095): 546. doi:10.1126/science.119.3095.546.a. S2CID 239835703.
  41. ^ Simpson, G. C. (1955). "Review of Climatic Change edited by Harlow Shapley". Journal of Glaciology. 2 (18): 609–610. doi:10.3189/S0022143000032895.

Further reading