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Uli W. Steinlin (1927–2015)

Steinlin was best known for his work on the structure and evolution of the Milky Way using star counts obtained from photographic surveys which helped quantify interstellar absorption and stellar space densities.

Published onDec 02, 2022
Uli W. Steinlin (1927–2015)

Photo courtesy of the author and Bettina Winkler-Steinlin.

Uli W. Steinlin passed away on Monday December 7, 2015 in his home at Biel-Benken near Basel, Switzerland. He was 88.

Uli W. Steinlin was born in Schaffhausen and brought up through graduation at high-school in Sankt Gallen, a safe place in Switzerland where his mother had, fortunately in time, moved from her German Jewish family home in Ulm. His father came from a family of physicians and merchants.

Uli enrolled at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zürich for initial studies in physics and then moved to the University of Basel to continue in philosophy with Professor Karl Jaspers and in astronomy at the institute directed by Professor Wilhelm Becker. There, he participated in the long-term project investigating the structure and evolution of the Milky Way using star counts obtained from photographic photometry of stellar magnitudes and colors in systematic surveys — a powerful method that he had learnt from his mentor Wilhelm Becker and which he developed further with his colleagues Rolf Fenkart and Gustav Tammann.

After finishing his dissertation in 1954 on interstellar absorption and stellar space densities in the Galactic region of Cepheus-Lacerta, Uli held postdoctoral research appointments in the United States at the Warner and Swasey Observatory, Lick Observatory, and Palomar Observatory in the years between 1956 and 1961. There, he perfected his skills as an observer and collected thousands of photographic plates for the ambitious Basel Galactic structure and history project. These “American Years” motivated yet another of Uli’s senses of history: they confirmed his view of that “new” way of doing science in Academia, which he had first got to know at his home institute under Wilhelm Becker, namely, to foster work provided by a real team of peer scientists, rather than by an inferior crew obliged to follow exclusively the undebatable orders given by a unique, absolute monarch in his field. Uli had come to conclude that a more teamwork-oriented liberal model of university professorships was definitely more efficient than the traditional European format, which used to overemphasize the top hierarchical status of the “Ordinarius,” — that lone “omnipotent emperor”. By publishing a booklet entitled Hochschule Wohin? (Whither University?) in 1962, Uli advocated such an historical step to be taken also at all the Swiss universities — away from their personality cult. While the official Swiss academic world could only slowly accommodate these new ideas, Uli himself of course had for long embodied them in both his teaching Astronomy classes and in his duties as thesis advisor — for the great benefit of all his students.

In order to increase the chances of Swiss students of Astronomy to become successful scientists, Uli was also among the first to support developing the necessary instrumental facilities and international contacts. In the early sixties, he worked out plans of possible sites for a national telescope (e.g., on the Gornergrat above the Alpine resort of Zermatt), before the creation of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) opened up even better possibilities, and which eventually resulted in Switzerland becoming a member state of ESO.

In the late sixties, just after he had been appointed to an extraordinary professorship in Basel, Uli was the driving force behind the foundation of the Swiss Society of Astrophysics and Astronomy (SSAA), of which he also became the first president. As a kind of professional “home” to the astronomers, the SSAA has provided financial and other support for participating in international collaborations and for attending international conferences and schools — like its own well-known annual “Saas-Fee Courses”.

Uli was married to Vera Markwalder, a younger high-school girl friend from Sankt Gallen, who had become a medical nurse. They had a son and a daughter together and lived to see with joy the growth of their grand-children … and of their greater Steinlin-Markwalder-Naeff family!

When Uli passed away on December 7, 2015 in his home at Biel-Benken near Basel, Switzerland, it was only five years after his monumental work on the History of the Steinlin Family from St. Gallen, published in 2007, had earned him the Prize of the Vontobel Foundation for Creativity at Old Age. The four-volume book is the result of his genealogical research, to which he devoted himself “full time” after his retirement from the University of Basel in 1992. It became also the final part of his life-work as a historian proper, for as such he had always interpreted and performed as well his official position as an astronomer and university professor.

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