May 31, 1912 - April 10, 1997
Election Year: 1956
Scientific Discipline: Astronomy
Membership Type: Member
Before 1900, astronomy had been almost exclusively concerned with the positions and motions of planets and stars, which were treated essentially as point objects. Only in the 20th century did we seriously begin to inquire into the interior structure—into the origin and evolution—of these “points.” Martin Schwarzschild was at the center of this scientific transformation, and he was its most influential leader. From 1964 on, his text Structure and Evolution of the Stars was the bible of stellar astrophysics.
Schwarzschild’s work was not limited to stellar interiors and evolution. Another field of interest was galactic structure and the mass distribution within normal galaxies. And he was a pioneer in realizing the potential for observations from above the Earth’s distorting and obscuring atmosphere.
Son of a prominent physicist, Schwarzschild was born and educated in Germany—he received his doctorate from Göttingen University in 1936—spent a postdoctoral year in Norway, and arrived in the United States in 1937 at the age of 25. After a decade of U.S. military service and junior positions at Harvard and Columbia, he moved to Princeton as a professor. There he joined Lyman Spitzer, Jr., where the two scientists established the Princeton University Observatory as a center of excellence in theoretical astrophysics. They often worked together throughout their careers until they both died—within weeks of one another—almost exactly one-half century from their initial appointments in the spring of 1947.
Schwarzschild’s capacity to strip all problems to their essential elements, combined with his vivacious personality, produced one of the great teachers and expositors of his discipline. His skill, patience, and human concern were legendary. Schwarzschild was famous for his intimate ties to and guidance of his students, and equally famous for large public lectures that informed and delighted a wider audience.