Maarten Schmidt

On this date in 1929, Maarten Schmidt was born in Groningen, the Netherlands. Schmidt grew up in a fairly nonreligious family and never attended church as a child. He became interested in astronomy at age 12 when he began building telescopes with help from an uncle. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Groningen University in 1949 and graduated from Leiden Observatory with a Ph.D. in 1956. After graduation he began working as an associate professor of astronomy at the California Institute of Technology and worked there until his retirement in 1996.

Schmidt’s most influential achievement was discovering in 1963 the first known quasar, a type of extremely massive and distant black hole. 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. Schmidt also worked as director of the Hale Observatories (1978-80).

He was on the cover of Time magazine on March 11, 1966. His numerous awards include the Rumford Prize in 1968, the Bruce Medal in 1992 and the inaugural Kavli Prize for Astrophysics in 2008, with Donald Lynden-Bell. Schmidt served as president of the American Astronomical Society (1984-86). He and his wife Corrie were married in 1955 and had two daughters.

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