Harlow Shapley (November 2, 1885 - October 20, 1972), was a US astronomer, political activist, participant in the Shapley-Curtis Debate, and director of the Harvard College Observatory.

Shapley was born on a hay farm outside of Nashville, Missouri, near the Ozarks, and was in fact a twin (his brother was named Horace -- both were named for their paternal and maternal grandfathers respectively). Shapley was educated and encouraged to learn by his elder sister Lillian. At the age of 15, he finished his early education at a small business school in Pittsburgh, Kansas, and took a job as a crime reporter for a newspaper in Chanute, Kansas. In Chanute, he discovered a Carnegie library -- one of many libraries around the country established by Andrew Carnegie. He found he enjoyed history and poetry, and was inspired to further his education. He returned to high school at a private Presbyterian high school in Carthage, Missouri, and graduated (valedictorian in a class of three) in 1907. From there, he went to the University of Missouri at Columbia. He wanted to study journalism at the school's "new" journalism department, but found on arrival that the department had yet to open! Needing a new major, he started thumbing through the course catalogue, and upon finding he couldn't pronounce "archaeology" tried astronomy instead. (He really said that in his autobiography! Whether he was kidding or not, who knows.) He was very successful at it, working with Frederick Seares, chair of the Astronomy Department. Shapley graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in 1910, and a Master's Degree in 1911.

After getting his Master's Degree, Shapley was offered a fellowship to Princeton University, where the Astronomy Department was then headed by Henry Norris Russell. At the time, Russell was deeply involved in using stellar spectra to determine the properties of stars and the orbits of spectroscopic binary stars. Shapley finished his Doctoral dissertation -- "The Orbits of Eighty-Seven Eclipsing Binaries -- a Summary" -- at Princeton in 1913 under Russell; after a vacation in Europe where he met many European astronomers (including Danish astronomer Ejnar Hertzsprung of Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram fame), he was offered a position at the new Mount Wilson Observatory in 1914. While moving from Princeton to Los Angeles, he stopped in Kansas City to marry Martha (nee Betz), whom he met at the University of Missouri and had courted since. (At the time, Betz was a graduate student of philology, but later studied astronomy and published several papers on stars and the Sun with her husband and others.)

At Mount Wilson, Shapley worked on color-magnitude diagrams with Seares (now also at Wilson), but also did independent work on Cepheid variables and globular clusters. (It is noteworthy that Shapley's "class" at Mount Wilson also included Adrian van Maanen and Edwin P. Hubble.) The work on globular clusters (particularly on Cepheids in clusters) was done at the suggestion of Solon I. Bailey who was doing similar work at the Harvard College Observatory. During Shapley's time at Mount Wilson, he used the Cepheid distance scale to determine the distances to many globular clusters. Then, using the observed distribution of globular clusters in the sky, Shapley (correctly) determined that our solar system lies many thousands of light years from the galactic center. The removal of the solar system from the center of the galaxy had important philosophical implications; it was not much different from discovery that the Sun rather than the Earth was at the center of the solar system, and as such is one of the more important discoveries in cosmology.

It was this work which Shapley presented at the Shapley-Curtis Debate in Washington in April of 1920. What is interesting about the Shapley-Curtis debate is that both men were right and wrong on their one of their two key points. Shapley (incorrectly) argued that the spiral nebulae were a part of the Milky Way, but (correctly) argued that our solar system sat in the outer reaches of a very large galaxy. Curtis (correctly) argued that spiral nebulae were other "island universes" just like our own galaxy, but got the scale of the Milky Way and our location in it wrong (he thought we were near the center). Shapley stated that part of his conviction that spiral nebulae were part of the galaxy came from van Maanen's detection of visible rotation in spiral nebulae (see Astrophysical Journal, v81, 336), which convinced him that the nebulae had to be small, and thus close by. Van Maanen's observations were later disproven -- galaxies do rotate, but their periods of rotation are hundreds of millions of years long, far too long to be detectable by measurement of proper motion.

During Shapley's trip to Washington, he was vetted for the directorship of the Harvard College Observatory, to which he was appointed in April 1921. He held the position until his retirement in 1952. Hoffleit notes that Shapley was the first to truly integrate education into the work of the Harvard College Observatory, and established a graduate curriculum at HCO. Shapley also mandated that public education be integrated into the mission of the Observatory, and lectures and presentations for school children became a part of the requirements for students in the program. While at Harvard, Shapley continued his research work, though at a reduced pace due to his other duties. In particular, he performed many studies of stars in the Magellanic Clouds using Harvard telescopes in Peru and (later) South Africa. He also conducted a survey with Adelaide Ames of 1246 bright galaxies using Harvard telescopes. The catalogue, called A survey of the external galaxies brighter than thirteenth magnitude, was published in 1932 and is more commonly known as the Shapley-Ames Catalogue (the catalogue was later revised by Gerard de Vaucouleurs in Astronomical Journal, 1956, v61, 430, and again by Allan Sandage and George Tammann in A Revised Shapley-Ames Catalog of bright galaxies in 1987).

During his time at Harvard (and after his retirement) he was involved in many of the scientific societies of the time, including the American Astronomical Society, Sigma Xi, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was also on the committees which helped to found the National Science Foundation and UNESCO. He was also a member of the then fledgling Federation of American Scientists. In the 1930's, Shapley worked to bring refugees from Hitler's Germany to the United States. During and after the war, Shapley also had friendly relations with many Soviet scientists. In 1946, Shapley was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee; he had been active in supporting a challenger to Congressman Joseph Martin of Massachussets, and (this is Shapley's unsubstantiated opinion here) he and the challenger (Martha Sharp) were being deliberately harassed by supporters of Martin, including Mississippi Democrat (and HUAC member) John Rankin. Shapley appeared before HUAC, accused them of bullying and "Gestapo tactics" and was found to be in contempt of Congress.

Shapley was later attacked by Joseph McCarthy, who claimed Shapley was a Communist in the State Department (despite Shapley's having no connection to the State Department whatsoever). Shapley responded to the press with "the Senator succeeded in telling six lies in four sentences, which is probably the indoor record for mendacity." However, Shapley did in fact associate with people believed to be communist sympathizers. He was a friend of Henry A. Wallace, and was invited to the Progressive Party convention in Philadelphia in 1948. However, Shapley declined to speak at the convention, and though he supported Wallace personally, he was against the Progressive Party's pro-Soviet and anti-Marshall Plan stances. Wallace came in a distant third behind Truman and Dewey. Shapley never regretted his friendship with Wallace, though he made a point of criticising the Communists and the slant of the Progressive Party.

In reading Shapley's autobiography, I liked his frank acknowledgment of some of his own past scientific mistakes, for example his candor about his hits and misses in the Great Debate. The ability to acknowledge one's own mistakes is an important part of science, and one of the harder aspects of the job. However, as an unfortunate counterexample, Hoffleit notes that Shapley wrongly sided with Henry Norris Russell in a dispute over the Doctoral dissertation of Cecilia Payne (later Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin) where Payne (correctly) determined that the Sun was mostly hydrogen, rather than of similar composition to the Earth. (The Harvard administration also refused to award Payne a PhD in 1926 because of her gender, and her degree was awarded by Radcliffe College instead. But that's another node.)

Shapley's book ends with a humorous anecdote about encountering a Harvard dean who told him he would have to give an informal talk in a week's time. Shapley was upset, and claimed he had nothing new or interesting to talk about, but the dean was persistent. Shapley said,

"All right. I will do it since I must do it. And the title of my talk can well be: 'The Scientific Blunders I Have Made.'"
"Oh, no," said the dean. "Not that; it is only to be a one-hour program."

Random factoids: Shapley came from a politically-oriented (Republican to be precise) family, though he himself would become a liberal Democrat later in life. His relatives were in fact Abolitionists before and during the American Civil War, and maintained a station on the underground railroad in New York. His grandfather ran for Governor of Missouri (and lost) several times. Shapley's uncle Lloyd Stogell Shapley fought in the navy in the Spanish American War, and was later the governor of Guam between April 1926 and July 1929.

Shapley also apparently had a fondness for ants, and spent many of his daylight hours on Mount Wilson studying them (rather than sleeping, which he should have been doing). It was a hobby, but he actually published a few papers on ant behavior, including how their speed is affected by the ambient temperature.

References:
H. Shapley, Through Rugged Ways to the Stars (Scribner's,1969);
G. Tauber, Man's View of the Universe: a pictorial history(Crown, 1979);
K. Krisciunas, Astronomical Centers of the World (Cambridge, 1988);
D. Hoffleit, Harlow Shapley and the Harvard Graduate School (http://www.union.edu/orgs/shapley/hoffleit.html);
Z. Kopal, Obituary of Dr. Harlow Shapley (Nature Magazine, 1972, v240, 429, from http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/htmltest/gifcity/shapley_obit.html).
I also made use of the NASA ADS abstract service at http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abstract_service.html

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