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Gerard Henri de Vaucouleurs (1918–1995)

Published onSep 01, 1996
Gerard Henri de Vaucouleurs (1918–1995)

Gerard de Vaucouleurs was born on 25 April 1918 in Paris. He became interested in astronomy in 1932 when his mother bought him a small telescope, and, after reading books by Th. Moreux, he decided he wanted to be a professional astronomer. He received his BSc in 1936 from the Lycee Charlemagne in Paris, and went to the University of Paris (the Sorbonne) from 1937-1939 for training in physics, astronomy, and mathematics.

Starting in 1939 Gerard briefly worked at the private observatory of Julien Peridier in southern France. But two months later, with the growing war, Peridier closed the observatory and Gerard returned to Paris. In 1943, Gerard enrolled again at the University of Paris to work on his doctoral degree with Jean Cabannes, and graduated in the spring of 1949 with a dissertation on molecular (Rayleigh) scattering of light in gases and liquids.

Gerard met his first wife, Antoinette, in the spring of 1944. This was the beginning of a life together dedicated to astronomy. They were married in October 1944, two months after the Allied liberation of Paris. As a student he published several books on photography, atomic energy, and astronomy; his research in photography was motivated by his growing interest to study galaxies. With the Haute Provence reflectors, he and Antoinette did surface photometry of galaxies with the Chalonge microphotometer. It is this work which led to the formulation of the famous de Vaucouleurs law for the luminosity distribution of elliptical galaxies in 1948.

Gerard did not see a future in extragalactic astronomy in France, so he and Antoinette went abroad, staying first in England and then moving to the Australian National University in Canberra, attracted by the 74- inch Grubb-Parsons reflector at Mount Stromlo. Gerard wrote to Richard Woolley, the director of the observatory and in 1951 became the first research fellow in astronomy at ANU to perform radial velocity studies of galaxies in the unexplored southern sky.

In 1954, Gerard left ANU to become observer-in-charge of the new Yale Southern Station. Dirk Brouwer, director of the Yale University Observatory, had moved the venerable 26-inch refractor there, but it took a few years to solve all the technical problems associated with this move, which occupied much of Gerard's time. In March 1957 Gerard left to take a new position at the Lowell Observatory to continue his studies of galaxies as well as Mars. With Harold Johnson, Gerard began a long-term program of UBV photometry of galaxies, but soon moved to Harvard in 1958, concentrating on Mars and other planets. At Harvard he planned a precision mapping project of Martian features that was later used by NASA for the Mariner 9 mission.

In 1960, Gerard left Harvard for the University of Texas astronomy department, where he spent the next 35 years. He and Antoinette quickly began observing galaxies at McDonald Observatory. They were one of the most productive husband/wife teams in astronomy until Antoinette's untimely death in 1987.

Extragalactic observational astronomy and cosmology occupied most of Gerard's career. In 1953 he demonstrated that the Milky Way is part of a large, flattened system of galaxies whose peak density lies in the direction of the Virgo Cluster. From the plane of this "Local Supercluster," he established a system of supergalactic coordinates which has been used extensively by specialists who analyze the distribution of nearby galaxies. In the same year Gerard argued that the Magellanic Clouds were not "irregular" galaxies but were actually a well-defined class of rotating barred spiral with a specific type of asymmetry.

Gerard and Antoinette produced a series of highly useful galaxy catalogs. The first, Reference Catalogue of Bright Galaxies (or RC1), published in 1964, was a monumental effort to collect and homogenize all relevant basic data on 2,599 bright galaxies. The cataloging work continued over the next 25 years with the production of a second catalogue (RC2) in 1976 and a third (RC3) in 1991. The first two reference catalogues set the stage for de Vaucouleurs' biggest career effort, a re-evaluation of the problem of the extragalactic distance scale. At the time, in the mid- to-late 70s, Allan Sandage and Gustav Tammann presented their evidence for a Hubble constant of 50 km/s/mpc. Between 1976-79, Gerard presented evidence from a variety of primary, secondary, and tertiary distance indicators for a Hubble constant closer to 100 km/s/mpc. For years the discrepancy in estimates persisted. The issue was not resolved at the time of Gerard's death.

Gerard built an optical Fabry-Perot interferometer at McDonald Observatory, and used it to obtain detailed velocity fields of bright galaxies. His "Galaxymeter" was well-known among his students and colleagues as an instrument designed to do almost anything on galaxies, from UBV multiaperture photometry to radial velocities, direct photography, narrow-band imaging and interferometry.

Gerard's enormous impact as a researcher included his influence as a teacher and mentor. He was strongly committed to his students and expected total commitment from them. When Gerard and a colleague were working on a topic that others were also working on or had worked on, he would always say that "We can do it better." This was a guiding principle in his life.

Gerard often entertained students and colleagues at home with slide shows of their many travels. Although he was very forceful and consequently quite opinionated, Gerard was a caring individual. He kept up with the literature much more than most of his colleagues. He was always genuinely interested in what others were doing, and had great appreciation for any work involving basic data on galaxies.

Although well into his seventies, Gerard still attended and participated in scientific meetings when he could. He was accompairied to meetings by his second wife, Elysabeth, whom he had married in 1988. At a 1994 meeting in Lyons, he was as active and dynamic as ever, and seemed in good health. Shortly thereafter he was to attend another meeting in Europe, and it was around this time that he developed serious health problems. During the next year, Elysabeth exhausted herself taking care of him as his health steadily deteriorated, and she was with him at their home in Austin when he died on October 7, 1995.

At the time of his death, Gerard was writing a book on SN 1885 (S Andromedae) in M31, and was compiling a detailed collection of photometric observations of SN 1993J in M81. He had spent 9 years working on the S Andromedae book, and told his wife Elysabeth that it was more than 90% completed. Both studies should be published in the near future.

Gerard de Vaucouleurs will long be remembered for his science, for his compassion, his caring, and for his love for astronomy. He left behind an enduring legacy for his colleagues and former students, and standards for all astronomers to follow and live up to. We may never see someone like him again, for, as Frank Bash once put it, he was one of the last of the great true astronomers. We are all better for having known him, worked with him, and learned from him.

A summary of research appeared as: Gerard and Antoinette de Vaucouleurs: A Life for Astronomy, edited by M. Capaccioli and H. G. Corwin, Jr., Singapore: World Scientific Press, 1989. An obituary appeared in Physics Today, April 1996, 76. The author and E. de Vaucouleurs have copies of an unpublished autobiographical memoir: "Through Long Nights .... Reminiscing a Cosmic Career" as told to Robert V. Reeves.

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