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Grote Reber (1911–2002)

Published onDec 01, 2003
Grote Reber (1911–2002)

Grote Reber, a pioneer of radio astronomy, died in Tasmania, Australia on 20 December 2002, two days before his 91st birthday. Reber was born in Chicago on 22 December 1911 and grew up in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, IL. His father, Schuyler Colefax Reber, who was a lawyer and part owner of a canning factory, died when Grote was only 21; his mother, Harriet Grote was an elementary school teacher in Wheaton. Among her 7th and 8th grade students at Longfellow School in Wheaton was young Edwin Hubble with whom Grote later exchanged views on cosmology. Grote graduated from the Armour Institute of Technology (now the Illinois Institute of Technology) with a degree in Electrical Engineering. He excelled in electronics courses but did less well in mathematics. After receiving his degree in 1933, Grote held a series of jobs with various Chicago companies including the Stewart-Warner and Belmont Radio Corporations.

Grote had a lifelong interest in electronics. At the age of 16, he received his amateur radio license, W9GFZ, signed by then Secretary of the Interior, Herbert Hoover. After contacting over 50 countries, he was looking for new challenges. He had read about Karl Jansky's discovery of cosmic radio emission and tried to interest astronomers at Yerkes Observatory, but except for Jesse Greenstein, they showed little interest. ``So," as he later related, ``I consulted with myself and decided to build a dish." He took astronomy courses from Philip Keenan and others at the University of Chicago. Using $2,000 of his own funds (about his annual salary), he took the summer of 1937 off from his engineering job at the Stewart-Warner Corporation to erect a 32-ft parabolic transit dish in a vacant lot next to his mother's house. Using his experience and skills as an electrical engineer and radio amateur he designed, built and tested a series of sensitive radio receivers, which he placed at the focal point of his parabolic dish. Following a succession of failures, in the spring of 1939, he finally succeeded in detecting the galactic radio noise and went on to make the first maps of radio emission from the galaxy and, in 1943, to detect radio emission from the sun.

Automobile ignition noise interfered with Reber's observations, so he observed only at night, laboriously writing down every minute the readings from his detector output. In the daytime, he returned to his job in Chicago, catching a few hours sleep each evening before returning to his observations; on weekends he analyzed his data. At first, Grote's discoveries were received with skepticism by the astronomical community and he had great difficulty in getting his papers accepted for publication in the astronomical literature. As he later claimed, ``The astronomers of the time didn't know anything about radio or electronics, and the radio engineers didn't know anything about astronomy. They thought the whole affair was at best a mistake, and at worst a hoax." But, following visits of Kennan and others to his Wheaton facility, he finally convinced "Astrophysical Journal" editor, Otto Struve, and others of the importance of his work. In addition to his classic publications in the "Astrophysical Journal", "Nature", and the "Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers" (now the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineering), he also wrote influential reports in "Popular Science", "Scientific American" and "Sky and Telescope". In 1947, together with Jesse Greenstein, he wrote the first review of radio astronomy which was published in the journal, "Observatory".

Plagued by local interference, he discussed with Otto Struve moving his antenna to a better site in Texas and also the possibility of building a much larger 200-ft dish. Reber recognized that an equatorial mount would be very expensive and proposed to use an alt-az mount together with an analogue coordinate converter of the type later implemented in Dwingeloo and Jodrell Bank. Through his younger brother Schuyler, then a business student at Harvard, he gained the interest of Harlow Shapley and Fred Whipple but he was unable to obtain any financial support from Harvard or any other university. Following his mother's death in 1945, Grote reluctantly accepted a position with the National Bureau of Standards in Washington and arranged to have his antenna re-erected in Washington where it was put on an alt-azimuth mount. But he was frustrated with government bureaucracy and disillusioned by the growing atmosphere of McCarthyism in Washington. In 1951, he moved to Hawaii where he pursued a variety of research programs in radio astronomy as well as atmospheric and ionospheric physics from the top of Haleakula on the island of Maui.

From Hawaii, he moved on to Tasmania in 1954, in order to exploit the ionospheric transparency associated with the south magnetic pole. While radio astronomers in the rest of the world were exploiting the newly emerging microwave technology to move to shorter and shorter wavelengths, Grote, characteristically departing from conventional ``wisdom," concentrated on the extremely long wavelengths. Working with Bill Ellis at the University of Tasmania, Reber designed and built a series of arrays to study Galactic radio emission and absorption at wavelengths of a few hundred meters. Following several years spent at the CSIRO Ionospheric Prediction Service, Grote moved from Hobart to Bothwell, in central Tasmania, where he designed and built an energy efficient home and where he lived for many years and made good friends.

With the growing importance after WWII of the contributions being made throughout the world by radio astronomy, Reber's pioneering studies ultimately became widely recognized. In 1961 he received the Cresson Prize from the Franklin Institute and in 1962, an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Ohio State University. He also received the AAS Russell Lecture Prize and the Bruce Medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Throughout his life, he had a strong interest in political and social issues. Writing to the Director of the NSF and the President of the NAS, he argued against big science and to reduce funding for large radio telescopes such as the VLA. Throughout his career, he questioned the ``big-bang" universe and authored a widely distributed paper on ``The Endless Boundless Universe." He was greatly concerned about the consequences of world population growth and preserving our natural resources, particularly the overuse of fossil fuels, which motivated his research on electric cars and consideration of increased use of sailing ships. He had no tolerance for scientific or other activities that did not meet his high standards but he was generous in giving recognition and praise to those whose work he admired. A college era friend recently described Grote as ``nervously energetic, enthusiastic, with a keen mind that went everywhere, an ever present, lively, sardonic, iconoclastic sense of humor, and strong opinions."

In addition to his pioneering work in radio astronomy, Reber also pursued and published research in a variety of fields ranging from radio circuitry and ionospheric physics to studies of cosmic rays, the atmosphere, archaeology and the growth of beans. He held a number of patents, including one for a radio sextant to ``shoot the sun" on cloudy days. Throughout most of his career, he worked as an amateur relying on his deep curiosity along with his imagination and skills as an electronics engineer combined with his persistent, forceful personality, and stubborn disregard for conventional opinion. At various times, he held guest appointments at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Ohio State University, the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization and, starting in 1951, he also received generous support from the Research Corporation in New York. However, he valued his independence and was skeptical of the strings that would be attached to any institutional support. He was scornful of establishment science, with its ``self appointed pontiffs," but his achievements were ultimately widely recognized by professional astronomers. Reber's extraordinary achievements as an amateur were probably unique in 20th century science.

Photo courtesy of Martin George

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