Caltech Mourns the Passing of Maarten Schmidt, 1929-2022

Maarten Schmidt, Francis L. Moseley Professor of Astronomy Emeritus at Caltech, passed away on Saturday September 17, 2022. He was 92 years old. Schmidt is best known for his 1963 discovery of quasars – extremely bright and distant cosmic objects powered by active supermassive black holes.

Schmidt was born in December 1929 in Groningen, Netherlands. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Groningen, his PhD from Leiden University in 1956 and his PhD from Yale University in 1966.

After receiving his PhD, Schmidt worked for two years as a Carnegie Fellow at Mount Wilson and Mount Palomar Observatories. He then returned to Leiden University for a year before moving to the United States.

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Schmidt joined Caltech in 1959 as an associate professor of astronomy. In 1964 he became a full professor, in 1981 an institute professor and in 1987 a Moseley professor. He retired in 1996 and became Moseley Professor Emeritus of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy from 1976 to 1978 and Director of the Hale Observatories from 1978 to 1980.

After first joining Caltech, Schmidt focused on the mass distribution and dynamics of galaxies. During this time he published a paper entitled “The Rate of Star Formation” in which he outlined a relationship between gas density and star formation rate in a given region. This relationship became known as Schmidt’s law.

Schmidt is best known for discovering quasars and measuring their great distances from Earth. While studying the light spectra of radio sources, he noticed that a cosmic object called 3C produced 273 spectral lines that were shifted toward the red end of the spectrum, or “redshifted,” indicating the object was about 3 billion light-years away, far beyond ours galaxy. Because the distant object shone too brightly to be a star, Schmidt concluded that the “quasi-stellar object” was the nucleus of a forming galaxy, in which swirling discs of matter surround a supermassive black hole.

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Since that pivotal observation in 1963, thousands of quasars have been identified. These objects only existed in the early Universe, but are visible from Earth today because it takes so long for light to travel such enormous distances. Schmidt’s work gave astronomers a deep insight into the history of our universe.

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Schmidt is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Kavli Prize for Astrophysics (2008); the Bruce Medal (1992); the James Craig Watson Medal (1991); the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1980); the Henry Norris Russel Professorship (1978); and the Helen B. Warner Prize (1964). He was also on the cover of time Magazine of March 11, 1966.

He is survived by his three daughters: Anne, Marijke and Elizabeth.

A detailed obituary will follow at a later date.

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