At his home in Fresno, Maarten Schmidt, an American astronomer of Dutch descent whose discovery of quasars fundamentally altered our view of the history of the cosmos and showed the strength and potential of the creatures that roam deep space, passed away.
A ravenous black hole devouring a meal
Schmidt had just started working at Caltech when he climbed into the observation cage of the enormous Palomar Mountain telescope to try to comprehend the readings radio astronomers were taking from a strange object that should have been a star but couldn’t possibly be one.
The item, which goes by the name 3C273 in the tasteless jargon of astronomy, was located 3 billion light years away, close to the Big Bang’s distance. Though it was brighter than our galaxy, which contains 100 billion stars, by a factor of hundreds. Even more puzzling, it appeared completely unrecognisable to Schmidt when he eventually obtained a spectrum of its light signature.
After struggling in vain for weeks, Schmidt finally admitted to his wife Corrie that “something dreadful happened at the office.”
It didn’t end up being as bad as I thought. The quasar, an incredibly powerful engine, was something Maarten Schmidt had discovered. Because it was so improbable, it took another six years for one of Schmidt’s students, Donald Lynden-Bell, to propose the solution: a ravenous black hole devouring a meal.
A black hole’s terrifying gravitational pull is so strong that nothing can escape, but the material at the edge of its swirling spiral is so intensely heated that energy bursts are launched there at almost the speed of light.
On Earth, radio telescopes were detecting this powerful burst. It wasn’t quite a star, a galaxy, a black hole, or even a star. It was the radiation released by the universe’s best entertainment.
Schmidt rose to prominence as a result of his discoveries.
Schmidt rose to fame thanks to his discoveries. He was depicted on the cover of Time magazine with an angular, bespectacled countenance. Awards poured in for him. Schmidt’s work also gained significance over time as cosmologists discovered the crucial role quasars played in the creation of the modern universe, unlike some other discoveries of strange objects in space.
George Djorgovski, an astronomy professor at Caltech and the head of the Center for Data-Driven Discovery, called the discovery of quasars “one of the foundational discoveries of astrophysics” that fundamentally altered astronomy.
$1 million Kavli Astrophysics Prize in 2008.
For a while, black holes had only existed in theory, but quasars provided direct evidence of their existence. They would contribute to the development of galaxies as well as other processes, such as demonstrating the presence of dark matter.
More than 40 years after his discovery, Schmidt and Lynden-Bell were awarded the $1 million Kavli Astrophysics Prize in 2008 for their work that “dramatically expanded the scale of the observable universe and led to our present view of the violent universe in which massive black holes play a key role.”
On December 28, 1929, Schmidt, the son of a government accountant, was born in Groninge, Netherlands. He constructed his first telescope at the age of 12 using a lens he discovered on his grandfather’s farm.
Determining the brightness of comets.
When he came to the attention of Jan Oort, the nation’s foremost astronomer and the man who gave the Oort Cloud of comets around the solar system its name, he was still a student at Groningen University.
At the oldest observatory in the world, Leiden University, Oort assigned Schmidt the task of determining the brightness of comets. However, his earlier research on the spectroscopic fingerprint of hydrogen would prove essential ten years later, when he made the discovery of an object that resembled a toy cap gun more than a supernova.
The existence of dark matter.
The astronomers at the Mt. Wilson and Palomar observatories in Southern California soon became aware of Schmidt due to his reputation for demanding perseverance. At the time, the observatories had the greatest collection of star surveyors in the world, including Fritz Zwicky, who predicted the existence of dark matter, and Walter Baade, who doubled the known size of the universe.
When Schmidt joined them in 1959, the radio telescope was a significant piece of equipment that was transforming astronomy. People could only communicate with each other through visible light for thousands of years before that.
However, electromagnetic waves come in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from powerful gamma and X-rays with the shortest wavelengths and highest frequencies through microwaves, low-frequency radio waves, and finally ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light.
Since radio waves can be anywhere between a few millimetres and a few kilometres long, they are far longer than light waves and require very large radio telescopes. A radio telescope can see through interstellar dust, which would block radiation with shorter wavelengths, which can be a difficulty but also one of its major benefits. As a result, radio telescopes might explore the universe’s most remote corners.
By 1961, Schmidt had earned the right to use the massive 200-inch telescope at Palomar, an apparatus so magnificent that the world’s brightest astronomers had to wait months or years for the chance to use it. It was Schmidt’s responsibility to locate a few peculiar objects that were being discovered by radio telescopes. It required a lot of time and effort, but the persevering young astronomer was perfect for it.
Later, he exclaimed to a reporter, “It was romantic.” “Every now and then, you just had to pause and take a look around.”
It was discovered that the majority of the radio emissions were typical elliptical galaxies. Some, however, were mysterious. Not at all like galaxies, they appeared. They resembled stars more than anything else, though. stars with enormous power. In particular, he was interested in 3C273, which radio astronomers in Australia had successfully focused on a portion of the sky that Schmidt believed Palomar would be able to observe. Schmidt hit the nail on the head in the latter part of December 1962, only a few weeks after the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world dangerously close to nuclear war. However, the riddle was not resolved. It was actually only getting started.
Two sources—a star and an associated jet of gaseous material—were responsible for the mystery 3C273. It didn’t make sense from the spectrum he captured on his photographic plates. Nothing he knew to fit the emission patterns on the spectrogram.
A few weeks later, Schmidt was working in his office on the second floor of the Caltech Robinson building when an idea suddenly came to him. He instantly understood that the image closely resembled the hydrogen fingerprint, the star’s main fuel, which is what he thought was the image. The only difference was that it was redshifted considerably, which meant that the object was both wonderfully far away and moving away from Earth at a phenomenal speed—nearly 30,000 miles per second.
However, it was more visible than the majority of nearby galaxies. How could something be seen if it was that far away? When compared to the Milky Way, which has a diameter of 100,000 light years, it was only slightly larger than our solar system and shone with the light of 2 trillion stars. What was going on?
When Schmidt turned to a colleague for help with a similar object, he was still dubious whether he was looking at something considerably closer, in our own galaxy, and hence far less intriguing. It was considerably more redshifted, which indicates that it was even more away, yet it had the same distinctive characteristic. The lightbulb moment occurred at that point.
When Schmidt and his colleagues released four now-classic publications in March 1964 detailing what Schmidt referred to as “quasi-stellar radio sources,” they instantly rose to fame in the scientific community. The name “quasars” was not immediately accepted by the scientific community.
Schmidt recalled the thrill of his finding in a 2014 interview. It was all extremely nice and, in no small part, beneficial to his career. After serving as director of the Hale Observatories, which ran the Palomar and Mt. Wilson telescopes, he was appointed chairman of the Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy at Caltech in 1975.
Schmidt said that the occasion was wonderful. But once completed, a task is complete.
Later on, when he was able to demonstrate how quasars fit into the overall scheme of the cosmos, his work became more fulfilling. They are among the oldest and most remote objects that can be analysed, and as such, “they represent a snapshot of what the universe was like at that time,” he said. I was successful in gathering proof of the universe’s early evolution.
They offered the first clues for the so-called reionization phase of the early cosmos, when stars and galaxies first started to form, according to Djorgovski. Djorgovski continued, “That was one of the significant phases in the evolution of the cosmos.”
The discovery of quasars.
The discovery of quasars revealed them to be cosmic dinosaurs, ferocious, prehistoric predators that prowled the space landscape and preyed on weaker organisms to satisfy their voracious appetites. This, together with the finding of the cosmic microwave background, served as the last straw for the so-called steady state hypothesis of the cosmos, which claimed that the universe had always been this way and will remain thus.
These remnants of an earlier universe, which are so extraordinarily distant and unlike anything being formed in space now, serve as evidence of how different the universe was when it was first created.
Supermassive black holes, like the one at the centre of the Milky Way, are currently thought to be present in the majority of huge galaxies. However, quasars, or what are now known as active galactic nuclei, are presently rather uncommon. They are eating, thus they are moving about. The great majority of black holes eventually swallow all the gas, dust, and other elements in their area and enter sleep.
One of these is the Sagittarius A* black hole, which is located near the heart of the Milky Way. However, in the future, its appetite will be reawakened. Andromeda, the nearest large galaxy, is steadily drawing closer to the Milky Way’s suburbs. In roughly 4 billion years, the two giants will come together.
Gas and dust tides will behear both galaxies’ deadly black holes’ shorelines as a result of that occurrence. No one on Earth will watch what ought to be a magnificent performance. By then, our planet won’t be habitable due to the Sun’s enlarging, reddening, and swelling.
Schmidt held the illustrious position of president of the American Astronomical Society for two years after his brief stint in the spotlight. He also received the James Craig Watson Medal in 1991 in addition to the Kavli Prize and the Royal Astronomical Society Gold Medal in 1980.
For 64 years, up to her passing in 2020, Schmidt was wed to Cornelia “Corrie” Schmidt-Tom. His three daughters, Elizabeth, Marijke, and Anne, are still alive.