Maarten Schmidt

On this date in 1929, Maarten Schmidt was born in Groningen, the Netherlands. Schmidt became interested in astronomy at the age of 12, when he began building telescopes with help from an uncle, and he has maintained his passion for astronomy throughout his life. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Groningen University in 1949 and graduated from Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands with his Ph.D. in 1956. After graduation, he began working as an associate professor of astronomy at the California Institute of Technology until his retirement in 1996. Schmidt’s most influential achievement was discovering the first known quasar, a type of extremely massive and distant black hole, in 1963. Quasars, which harbor clues to early conditions of the universe, provided strong evidence to support the then-controversial big-bang theory of the origin of the universe. Schmidt continued researching quasars, along with x-ray and gamma ray astronomy, during his time at the California Institute of Technology. Schmidt has also worked as an administrator at the California Institute of Technology (1972–1979) and the director of the Hale Observatories (1978–1980). His numerous awards include the Rumford prize in 1968, the Bruce medal in 1992 and the first ever Kavli Prize in astrophysics in 2008, shared with six other scientists. Schmidt served as president of the American Astronomical Society (1984–1986). He and his wife, Corrie, were married in 1955 and they have two daughters.

Schmidt is a nonbeliever who grew up in a fairly nonreligious family and never attended church as a child, according to an Oct. 24, 1977 interview with Dr. Spencer Weart.

When asked he believed in God: “I don’t. No, no, no. And I imagine at our table [of California Institute of Technology faculty], the minority would.”

—Maarten Schmidt, Los Angeles Times (May 31, 2008).

Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

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