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Zdeněk Švestka (1925–2013)

Solar physicist Švestka contributed to our understanding of solar flares and solar particle events and co-founded the journal Solar Physics.

Published onDec 15, 2022
Zdeněk Švestka (1925–2013)
Figure 1

Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Co-founder and long-time co-Editor-in-Chief of the journal Solar Physics, solar physicist Zdeněk Švestka, passed away at his home in Bunschoten, The Netherlands on Saturday, March 2013, at the age of 87.

Zdeněk was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, on September 30, 1925. In an autobiographical essay he recounted his introduction to the Czech Astronomical Society by a classmate while in secondary school [1]. With his university education delayed by World War II, he worked long hours in a factory by day and observed long period Mira variable stars by night (objects he had first begun observing at age 16). He also visited the Štefánik Observatory on Petřín Hill in Prague, where he “would borrow astronomical books from people there and keys to the rooms with telescopes and sometimes I would show visitors round the observatory when the official guides did not have time” (Horáková 2002). After the war he studied mathematics and physics at Charles University in Prague, and upon graduation in 1948 joined the Astronomical Observatory at Ondřejov, initially as a gardener. Despite this inauspicious beginning to his astronomical career, he completed his R.N.Dr. at Charles University (1949) under František Link while continuing his observations of Mira variables and other projects. His thesis topic, a study of Earth’s shadow during lunar eclipses, was selected for practical reasons, as it “did not need any expensive instrumentation” ([1], p. 246).

Zdeněk remained at Ondřejov through 1970; although he initially worked with Link on measurements of the ionosphere, solar astronomy ultimately became his focus. Following the establishment of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences in 1953 Zdeněk began further studies, earning a C.Sc. in 1956 and D.Sc. in 1966 based on his research on solar flares. In 1956 he became the head of the new Solar Department of the Institute of Astronomy at Ondřejov; over the next decade the facilities grew to include an impressive suite of cutting-edge instrumentation, including a multi-camera solar spectrograph for observing solar flares and prominences. In recognition of the solar research done at Ondřejov, Zdeněk and his team received a Czechoslovak State Prize in 1962, and Zdeněk became vice president of the IAU Commission 10 for Solar Activity, serving as President of Commission 10 from 1964–1970. Among his accomplishments during this time was the organization of the International Years of the Quiet Sun (1964–5) and the 1966 Proton Flare Project which observed several significant Solar Particle Events (outbursts of high energy particles from the sun) [2].

In 1970 Zdeněk spent a year at the European Space Research and Technology Centre (Noordwijk, The Netherlands), but politics rather than science ultimately dictated his subsequent career path, when he lost his citizenship for nearly two decades after requesting to remain abroad for a second year [3]. After several years at the Fraunhofer Institute in Freiburg, Germany, Zdeněk spent 1974–7 working in the scientific laboratory at the American Science and Engineering company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He finally landed in the position of Principal Scientist in the Laboratory for Space Research in Utrecht (The Netherlands) in 1977, remaining until his retirement in 1990. In order to facilitate research utilizing X-ray observations of solar activity he cultivated a collaboration with Bernie Jackson and Paul Hick at the University of California-San Diego.

Zdeněk is perhaps best known for his decades of work with the journal Solar Physics. During his presidency of Commission 10 he visited Cornelis “Kees” de Jager, the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Space Science Reviews, in Utrecht, and agreed with de Jager’s suggestion that there needed to be a specialized solar journal. Solar Physics was founded by the pair in 1966, acting as co-Editors-in-Chief for nearly three decades until de Jager’s retirement. Zdeněk remained as co-Editor-in-Chief with other partners until 2005. Afterwards he remained engaged with the journal as an Editorial Consultant [3].

In addition to his numerous journal articles, Zdeněk published several astronomy books in his native language through the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, as well as Solar Flares (1976) [4]. He was a member of the International Academy of Astronautics in Paris, an honorary member of the Scientific Committee on Solar-Terrestrial Physics, and an honorary member of the Learned Society of the Czech Republic. Additional awards include the Guggenheim Award in Astronautics (1968), Gold Medal of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences (1995), and the František Nušl award of the Czech Astronomical Society (2002). Minor planet 17805 Švestka honors him.


See also Švestka’s AstroGen entry.

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