Astronomy Bio...George Herbig

Jay Bitterman

George Howard Herbig was born on January 20, 1920 in Wheeling, West Virginia. He is an American astronomer who specializes in spectroscopic research into irregular variable stars, notably those of the T-Tauri group.

He graduated from the University of California in Los Angeles in 1943. In 1944 he became a staff member at the Lick Observatory, California, starting as a junior astronomer. From 1960 to 1963 he progressed from assistant astronomer, astronomer to assistant director. In 1966 he became a professor of astronomy.

The nebular variable of which the prototype is T-Tauri, is Herbig's main area of research. It is theorized that members of this group are in an early stage of stellar evolution. Most of them are red and fluctuate in light intensity. Their associated nebulosities also fluctuate in brightness and structure, although the reason for this is not known.

Along with Bidelman and Preston, Herbig had studied the spectra of these and other variable stars. In 1960 he brought attention to the fact that many of them contain a prevalence of lithium lines, which is similar to the abundance of lithium on Earth and in meteorites, but is considerably more than found in the Sun. He concluded that the abundance of lithium, in both the planetary and T-Tauri, might represent the original level of this element in the Milky Way, and that the lithium in the Sun and other stars might have been largely lost through nuclear transformation. Herbig further showed that the conservation of angular momentum of such young, cool variable stars and T-Tauri variables move together in parallel paths within the obscuring cloud in which they were formed.

Herbig also studied binary stars, which are in orbital motion relative to each other because of their proximity and mutual gravitational attraction. He investigated the binary of the shortest known orbital period, VV Puppis, which has an eclipsing binary with a 100 minute period.

Herbig has also studied the spectra of atoms and molecules that originate in interstellar space. In 1904, Johannes Hartmann found that the absolute lines of Ca(II) in the spectrum of Delta Orionis do not influence the periodic oscillation of other lines. Since then other atoms and molecular combinations were discovered to have originated in interstellar space, such as Na(I), Ca(I), K(I), Ti(II), CN and CH. There are also a number of diffuse interstellar absorption lines which have not been identified but which Herbig has succeeded in resolving into band lines.

Published in the January 2001 issue of the NightTimes