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Lodewijk Woltjer (1930–2019)

AAS honorary member Lodewijk Woltjer was the third director general of the European Southern Observatory, President of the International Astronomical Union, and a founder and the first president of the European Astronomical Society.

Published onApr 22, 2020
Lodewijk Woltjer (1930–2019)
<p><em>Credit: 1970 gift from Lodewijk Woltjer to the author, with the sorts of sentiments generally so inscribed</em></p>

Credit: 1970 gift from Lodewijk Woltjer to the author, with the sorts of sentiments generally so inscribed

Lodewijk Woltjer died on Sunday the 25th of August, 2019.

AAS honorary member Lodewijk Woltjer died on 25 August 2019 at a rest home in Geneva, Switzerland, after a long and rather grim series of illnesses. During his years as professor and department chair at Columbia University, Woltjer was a member of AAS Council (1968–71), part of the founding committee of the High Energy Astrophysics Division (1968–72), its vice-chair (1974) and chair (1975), editor of the Astronomical Journal (1967–74), and founding editor of its spin-off, the Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, in the successor to which these words appear. The early volumes had pale blue covers, because he had always liked blue, and he rather resented the change when later editors adopted a different color each year.

Generally called Lo (not because he was frightfully informal, but probably because even among native speakers of Dutch there is some disagreement about the correct pronunciation of his first name), Woltjer was born in Noordwijk, The Netherlands, on 26 April 1930 to Jan Woltjer, Jr. (an astronomer whom you will find in the 2nd edition of the Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers) and Hillegonda Hester de Vries. His three siblings all also became scholars: Anna Halasz (sociology), Margo Dekker (classical languages, the territory of grandfather Jan Woltjer, Sr.), and Jan Juliaan (history).

LW's early life was interrupted by the Second World War, during part of which time his family sent him to Switzerland, whence he returned with fluent French and a love of the country, but he also experienced the extreme food shortage in The Netherlands, during which sugar beets were briefly tolerable, but soon became cloyingly sweet (he never much liked sweet things in later life), leaving tulip bulbs as more edible, though very bitter. Jan Woltjer, Jr. died in 1946 of the effects of that hunger winter. Our Woltjer went on to college, briefly touching in on chemistry and geology, before turning to astronomy, with early papers on variable stars and on the solar chromosphere. All sources say that his PhD, under Jan H. Oort, was awarded and published in 1957, but a recent biography of Oort gives the thesis defense date as 6 November 1958. A Dutch PhD examination is a wonderfully formal ceremony (portions of which Leiden PhD Gart Westerhout carried to the University of Maryland), in which the "honorable candidate" defends a number of propositions only very loosely related to the thesis under consideration.

So many of Woltjer's propositions were devoted to attacking other astronomers' work, that one is nearly astonished he got a job at all (my deep thanks to Piet van der Kruit for locating and translating them). In fact, LW went first to Yerkes Observatory (U. Chicago) and then to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He made good use of that time. His most-cited paper (more than 700 in early October of 2019), on force-free magnetic fields, dates from his Chicago time with Chandrasekhar. A preliminary version of the work was a joint paper, Chandrasekhar and Woltjer; he always insisted on alphabetical ordering of authors. And the Franz Kahn and LW (1959) paper on the mass of the Local Group, derived from the approach speed between M31 and the Milky Way, carries the Princeton address. The masses came out about ten times those implied by the luminosities, and the paper is now often regarded as a dark matter precursor. Curiously, in a later paper on the radial velocities of globular clusters, Woltjer opined that there was little evidence for large masses in the halos of the Milky Way or other galaxies, citing Ostriker and Yahil for the claim that there was (now regarded as correct).

These and several other papers obeyed a principle that Woltjer had laid out — an astronomer should declare a five-year moratorium on his thesis topic before returning to it. The thesis was on the optical polarization, magnetic field, and other attributes of the Crab Nebula, the Bulletin of the Astronomical Institutes of the Netherlands version of which is also highly cited. It included the idea that there must be an ongoing source of relativistic electrons to maintain the synchrotron radio and optical emission, and suggested that ripples coming out from the "south preceding star" (now known to be a pulsar) carried the necessary energy. He also somewhat parted company with his thesis advisor, Jan Oort, in wanting to put the Nebula 1.5 kpc away. Oort and N. U. Mayall had declared the distance to be 1 kpc. The present author's thesis (published in 1968 in The Astronomical Journal under Woltjer's editorship) said 2 kpc, and, curiously, he used data from that paper to claim 1.5 kpc again, but more than five years had by then passed.

He went back to Leiden for two years as a research associate, then, in 1961, a professorship of Astronomy and Plasma Physics there. Additional and diverse scientific papers come from that epoch and later, which I will explore in detail in a scientific biography for another journal in due course. LW seems to have had no formal PhD students during those Leiden years. Perhaps the shadow of the Great Oak (as Chandra called Oort at the time of his death) was too broad. In any case, Woltjer moved to take up a professorship of astronomy, department chairmanship, and an observatory directorship at the then very small astronomy department at Columbia University early in 1964.

The previous lord high everything else at Columbia had been Jan Schilt, a Kapteyn student from Groningen and an assistant astronomer at Leiden in 1922-25. The Rutherford Professorship is rather an odd, non-endowed one, and has had significant interregnums between Harold Jacoby and Schilt, between Schilt and Woltjer, between Woltjer and Edward Spiegel, and on to the current holder, Jacqueline von Gorkum (also Dutch). Woltjer's Columbia appointment was preceded by short visits to MIT and the University of Maryland, which carry a slight flavor of job interviews (both groups were growing rapidly at the time).

According to the Mathematics Genealogy Project, six students completed PhDs with Woltjer at Columbia, and a literature troll finds two more who started with him and completed dissertations with other faculty. These are, with years, thesis titles and current locations, where I could find them:

  • 1966, John Landstreet: “Effect of a Large Magnetic Field on Energy Transfer in White Dwarf Stars”. In the AAS Directory; emeritus at University of Western Ontario. He had 13 thesis students of his own. The co-discoverer of strong magnetic fields in white dwarfs, in a project originally organized by Woltjer, who had predicted such fields, as well as those in neutron stars.

  • 1967, Edward Ng: “Self-consistent (mathematical) Models of Disk Galaxies”. Long and successful career at JPL, now retired. It would be worth checking whether the models incorporated the same sort of idea M. Schwarzschild thought about — that the sum of the orbits of the point stars should add up to the potential you started with.

  • 1968, Wei-yin Chau: “Rotation and Oscillation of a Neutron Star”. Bounced a couple of times around Ohio. Last ADS paper, some years ago, from Hong Kong.

  • 1969, John Trasco: “Models of Massive Stars”. In the AAS directory; retired from a long and enormously valuable career at the University of Maryland, keeping the astronomy program, and later department, in coherent order under a long series of chairs.

  • 1970, Donald Dzamba: “Nova Simulations”. Arranged for book-style publication of his thesis, QB841.D9, then lost to follow-up.

  • 1970, Mary Louise (Lou) West: “Self-consistent Models of Disc Galaxies”. She was the first user of the Columbia’s Harriman Observatory. In AAS directories until quite recently, at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Still on their website as emerita. Long career in teaching and public outreach as professor of mathematical sciences.

  • 1972, Anthony G. Sgro: “On the Propagation of a Fast Shock Wave through an Inhomogeneous Interstellar Gas”. This appeared as a 1975 paper on Cas A with 120 citations (late September 2019), thanking Woltjer, but his official advisor was someone else. Long and successful career at Los Alamos National Laboratory, mostly not AAS member.

  • 1975, Daniel P. Hayes. The main, nearly the only, user of the Columbia Harriman Observatory outside New York, measuring, or attempting to measure, polarization of OB stars. Thanked Woltjer but finished with K. Prendergast. Remained in the New York area for some time; now lost to follow-up.

This was a period when many graduate departments were producing lots of astronomy PhD's so it is possible to argue whether this was too many, too few, or just right. But if every astronomy faculty member had, in each decade, turned out two PhD's who stayed at research universities; one who taught; two who went into government labs or industry; one who went back to his/her home country, and two who vanished, we would not be short of astronomically-trained scientists, as indeed we are not.

The AAS had owned the Astronomical Journal since 1941, when Dirk Brouwer became editor, and there was a modest subsidy from the income of the Benjamin Apthorp Gould fund, held by the National Academy of Sciences and the gift of Gould's daughter, Alice Bache Gould, in 1897. When Brouwer died, G. M. Clemence, who had been his second in command, took over briefly. The contents were thought old-fashioned at the time, and the AAS Council appointed Woltjer to the editorship in 1967 with a charge to "revitalize." Some of the Caltech faculty were supportive of this, and Donna Weistrop and I published our thesis papers there (rather than in the ApJ like most Caltech astronomy thesis papers) during his term. We both experienced rapid acceptance of the first thesis paper and a delay with revisions of the second. Mine had a real blooper, mercifully caught by referee Rudolf Minkowski, and hers was “controversial,” because Willem Luyten disagreed with the result on the numbers of faint red dwarfs. Other Columbia faculty were associate (etc.) editors and took over when Woltjer returned to Europe (officially 1 January 1975) as third director general of the European Southern Observatory. He kept up his AAS membership through moves to Hamburg (where Otto Heckmann had kept the ESO office, and where he refereed my first thesis paper!), on to ESO/CERN in Geneva, and then to Garching-bei-München, but disappears from the directories through the 1980s, only to reappear as an honorary member in 1996.

It cannot quite be the case that Lodewijk was yearning for Europe throughout his New York years, because (according to a recent biography of Jan Oort), he was offered the founding directorship of WSRT (the Westerbork Radio Systhesis Telescope) in 1969, but turned it down, as did Maarten Schmidt. But return he did, and his career at ESO (leading to the decision to build the VLT), then as President of the International Astronomical Union and a founder and the first president of the European Astronomical Society are told in European-based obituaries and memorials, including one by me (for The Observatory magazine) and on an ongoing website maintained by ESO.

Woltjer became the author of at least two books — Europe’s Quest for the Universe and, with Roger Maurice Bonnet, a volume on whether humanity could survive for thousands of generations. They thought yes, but elsewhere Woltjer expressed doubts about the century-plus survival of sciences like astronomy, because of the enormous costs. He also expressed reservations about the single-mirror format of the ELT, having strongly supported the four-telescope design of the VLT, because it permitted not only use as soon as one was commissioned but also up to four independent projects at one time, if the full collecting area was not required, and an interferometry mode.

After the ESO years, Woltjer and his second wife, Ulla Demierre (who had run his office in CERN and then Garching), bounced among Chile, Italy, Observatoire de Haute Provence, and probably other places, finally settling in Geneva, which he had always declared to be “a very livable city,” where she predeceased him by about 5 months. He is survived by daughter Leonore Woltjer Nelson, from his first marriage, to Johanna Eichhoorn. Leonore, like her father, was born in Noordwijk, The Netherlands (site of the IAU Symposium where he uttered the immortal words, “the larger our ignorance, the stronger the magnetic field”) but is now a resident North American. Late in life he expressed the intention of writing another book and becoming a Swiss subject. These probably never happened (nor did a planned IAU 2015 General Assembly symposium on developing astronomy in less developed countries that he, Bonnet, and I had discussed). A ceremony casting both sets of Woltjer ashes into the Mediterranean from the French coast was held in October 2019.


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