Astronomy Bio...Gerard DeVaucouleurs

Jay Bitterman

Gérard Henri De Vaucouleurs was born in France on April 25, 1918. At the age of 10 he would observe the moon using a friend's marine telescope. A coupe of years later his mother gave him a telescope. In 1939 he received his undergraduate degree and in 1949 his graduate degree from the University of Paris. He was a Research Fellow at the Institute of Astrophysics and at the Sorbonne Physics Research Laboratory from 1945 to 1950. After getting his degree he moved to England, where he produced a weekly program for the BBC and worked at Mill Hill Observatory of the University of London. From 1951 to 1954 he was at the Australian National University and from 1954 to 1957 he was an Observer at the Australian Yale-Columbia Southern Station. In 1957 he received his DSc from the Australian National University. In 1957 he emigrated to the United States and joined Lowell Observatory in Arizona as an Astronomer. In 1958 he received an appointment to the Harvard College Observatory as a Research Associate and became Associate Professor. In 1960 he became Professor of Astronomy at the University of Texas, at Austin. In 1962 he became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

De Vaucouleurs' main focus of research was to find a pattern of the location of nebulae, clusters of stars formerly thought to be randomly scattered across the sky as viewed from Earth. But as telescopes became more powerful, there was more evidence that in fact nebulae themselves tended to cluster together. Extragalactic nebulae, although they look small and faint, are more numerous and appear to be distinctly grouped. The nebulae, of up to the twelfth or thirteenth magnitude, which are closer to us form superclusters, and many turn out to be in a definite band across the heavens. When he was at the Australian Commonwealth Observatory, Mount Stromlo, Canberra (in 1952) he started a more thorough investigation of a local supercluster, using newer and more accurate data. In 1948 he discovered the "r1/4 law" of the luminosity distribution of elliptical galaxies and was the first to utilize the technique of photometric decomposition of spirals into bulge and disk components. In 1949 he became the first astronomer to calculate the cosmic background light due to galaxies. From 1956 to 1959, along with Allan Sandage, he revised Hubble's original galaxy classification system, a three-dimensional scheme whose main dimension correlated well with measured global parameters such as bulge-to-disk ratio, integrated colors, hydrogen mass-to-light ratios, and mean surface brightness of southern nebulae.

De Vaucouleurs is probably best known for his extensive work on the cosmic distance scale and for publication of his three Reference Catalogues (1964, 1976 and 1991) of bright galaxies. It took many years of work by De Vaucouleurs, coworkers and students to obtain the data on morphology, magnitudes, colors, and radial velocities that was included in these catalogues. They used his "Galaxymeter" to obtain photometry, spectra, direct photography, and interferometry of galaxies at McDonald Observatory. He proposed a model in which the great Virgo cluster might be "a dominant congregation not too far from its central region". As evidence for its existence he pointed out the similarity in position and extent of a broad maximum of cosmic radio noise that was reported by other researchers both in Britain and the United States.

De Vaucouleurs received many awards and honors during his career. In 1980 he received the Herschel Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society and an Ashbel Smith Professorship from the University of Texas. In 1982, was made a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. In 1988 he received the Henry Norris Russell Prize of the American Astronomical Society. He died on October 7, 1995.

Published in the April 2002 issue of the NightTimes