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Walter Baade: Master Observer  

Mercury, July/August 2002 Table of Contents

Walter Baade

Courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

by Donald E. Osterbrock

The great German-American astronomer Walter Baade not only pioneered supernova research, he doubled the distance scale of the universe and fathered the idea of stellar populations based on age.

Walter Baade was one of the great astronomers of the 20th century. He opened up the fields of stellar and galactic evolution, which have contributed so much to astronomy in our time, but which were sterile and unproductive areas of research before his landmark discovery in 1944 that stars fall into two distinct populations. Baade (pronounced BAH-dah) was lucky to be the right man in the right place at the right time, but he was able to seize the situation and make the most of it in a way that none of his contemporaries could.

Besides being a great scientist, Baade was also a warm human being, a German who was widely admired, loved, and respected in America despite two bloody world wars. He was an outstanding teacher who claimed he did not like to teach, but who left behind a generation of astronomers he had advised and inspired. Widely considered "only" an observational astronomer, he had an excellent training in astrophysics and collaborated with astrophysicists all his life. His aim was to understand the universe, and he took us far along the path toward that goal.


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