Horace W. Babcock
Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science
September 13, 1912 - August 29, 2003
Election Year: 1954
Scientific Discipline: Astronomy
Membership Type: Member
Astronomer Horace Welcome Babcock spent most of his career, more than three decades, at the Mount Wilson and Palomar (later, Hale) Observatories, where he produced a famously successful model of the 22-year cycle of solar activity, pioneered the measurement of magnetic fields and spectroscopy of stars more massive than the sun, and invented electro-optical instruments and techniques that continue to be employed throughout the world. He was also among the first to propose the idea of adaptive optics—a technology used in telescopes to reduce the effects of atmospheric distortion.
Babcock majored in structural engineering at Caltech, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1934. He earned his Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1938. He then joined the staff of the Yerkes and McDonald Observatories (of the University of Chicago and University of Texas) but left in 1941 to contribute to the American effort during World War II; he worked as a physicist and engineer at MIT’s Radiation Lab. In 1946 Babcock accepted a research position at Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories. He served as director there from 1964 to 1978, during which time he led tirelessly in the creation of one of the world’s premier observatories at Las Campanas (in the foothills of the Chilean Andes), built to study the skies of the Southern Hemisphere. While Babcock’s contributions to astrophysics were important and numerous, many consider his establishment of the Las Campanas Observatory, with its exceptional location, infrastructure, and telescopes, to have been his main legacy to astronomers today.