Ernst Julius Öpik


Born: 22 October 1893 in Kunda, Russian Empire (now Estonia)
Died: 10 September 1985 in Bangor, Northern Ireland

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Ernst Öpik was the son of Karl Heinrich Öpik, a customs officer, and Leontine Johanna Freiwald. To understand the events of Ernst Öpik's life we need to give a very brief overview of the history of Estonia. We quote from [7]:-
The Estonians are a small ethnic group, closely related to the Finns, that settled in the area south of the Gulf of Finland more than a thousand years ago. Their language belongs to the Finno-Ugric group, unrelated to the Indo-European languages spoken in most of the rest of Europe. Throughout most of historical time the land of the Estonians was occupied and governed first by Germans and Danes, then by Swedes, and finally (since 1721) by Russians, but their identity was never lost. Estonia ... gained her independence in 1920 ... Independence lasted little more than two decades ... Russian troops invaded Estonia in June 1940 and the country became a member republic of the Soviet Union in August of that year ... In July 1944 Estonia was conquered by the German army, which in turn was expelled by the Russians in July 1944.
Johanna Karl was born on 3 November 1861, in Tallinn, Estonia, and Leontine was born on 15 December 1864, also in Tallinn. Karl and Leontine married in 1885 and had ten children including: Anna (1886-1955), who taught herself 13 languages, including Sanskrit, and translated Homer's Odyssey into Estonian; Paul (1888-1967), President of the Pikalaen Bank, 1928-1940; Heinrich (1890-1890), died less than one year old; Ernst (1893-1985), the subject of this biography; Oskar (1895-1974), Estonian ambassador to France and Germany as well as at the League of Nations; Armin (1898-1983), Professor of Geology and Palaeontology at the University of Tartu, later Member of the Australian Academy of Sciences.

Norma Romot, Armin Öpik's daughter, writes in [7] that Karl:-

... was orphaned at an early age and was brought up at an orphanage and on a cadet ship of the Russian Imperial navy. Because of his strict upbringing, Karl Heinrich tried to apply the same regimen at home and would have made his children's lives utter misery if my grandmother's influence had not been stronger. She was soft hearted, and taught her children languages, music, art, etc.
Ernst's interest in astronomy might well have begun when he was very young as his brother Oskar suggested [16]:-
Ernst's sister Anna was the one who opened his eyes to the beauty of heaven and stars in the courtyard of the port on one night - it was probably a small comet in Lyra that brother Ernst observed and he has since become a world-renowned astronomy scholar.
In 1900 Ernst left Kunda and went to Tallinn where he attended the Nikolai High School. This school was founded in 1631 by the King of Sweden Gustav II Adolf but was renamed Nikolai I Gymnasium by the Russians. Up to 1890 it had been a German speaking school but the Russian adopted a policy of Russification and brought in Russian teachers who taught in Russian. Ernst, however, reacted against the Russification by being active in a secret literary circle who made an introduction to Estonian literature. Ernst wrote of his school years [5]:-
In the upper classes of the school, I organized a circle of physicists-mathematicians who relied on me to be so confident about physics that we were given free access to the physics and chemistry laboratories. I especially studied and gave presentations in chemistry ... With one of my brothers and Karl Reinberg, I founded a group of astronomers, the Vega circle of amateurs, and we bought a telescope, which is currently owned by the University of Tartu, donated by the former Vega members. With its rare lens, I observed the planet Mars in Tallinn in autumn 1911, which also resulted in my first scientific paper published in 1912.
Öpik graduated from the high school in 1911 with the gold medal. Fred Singer writes [15]:-
He [Öpik] claimed that he learnt all of the important physics and mathematics at that high school ...
He wished to study astronomy at the University of Moscow but, as he explained some 25 years later, he could not begin immediately [5]:-
After graduating from upper secondary school, I could not go to university right away, namely for economic reasons; with ten children there was no way for our parents to support their studies - on the contrary, we, the children, when studying at high school had to be able to support the family by giving paid lessons. In the year following graduation I studied mathematics - almost the entire university mathematics course was covered in this year, so that later, at university, I could immediately start research in my field. Already having a sufficient mathematical preparation I continued, of course, with astronomical observations.
In the autumn of 1912 Öpik began his studies at the University of Moscow. He chose the University of Moscow rather than the University of Tartu because in Moscow he could earn some money giving lessons but it was still a great struggle and he had to run up debts living in the Moscow Society of Estonia dormitory which he settled when he had the chance to give more lessons. Despite these difficulties, between 1912 and 1916 he produced 18 articles, showing a rapid development from an amateur level at the beginning to a top world-class researcher by the end of the four years. Although a student, he seems largely self-taught for he claimed he had nothing to learn from the astronomy professors at the University of Moscow, Vitold Czerask (1849-1925) and Pavel Sternberg (1865-1920). He graduated with an astronomy degree in 1916 and continued to work to qualify as a university professor.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 saw the country enter political chaos, with coup attempts and a collapsing economy with food shortages. Öpik was not the only member of his family in Moscow at that time for his brother Oskar and sister Anna were also there. Oskar wrote (see [9]):-

I remember one day when Ernst and I had nothing to sustain us except the boiling water in the samovar. It was then that Anna arrived, like an angel, with food.
Moscow remained relatively quiet for much of 1917 but, after the Bolsheviks seized power in St Petersburg in October, fighting began in Moscow. By 3 November the Bolsheviks were in control of the city. Öpik was totally opposed to the Bolsheviks so he joined the White Army, travelling to Yaroslavl where the Red Army was stationed. Öpik had a mysterious girlfriend in Yaroslavl which proved useful when he was captured by the Bolsheviks and sentenced to death. He claimed he had been using false identity papers so he could visit his married lover in Yaroslavl. He must have been convincing for he was released and able to return to astronomy in Moscow. We quote from Öpik's own description of the events of 1919 [13]:-
In the beginning of 1919, when Bolshevik rule was firmly established in most of Russia, with some fighting still continuing on the fringes, the new rulers decided to found a university in Tashkent ... . Over 100 professors and other teaching staff with their families volunteered to leave starving Moscow and to start a new life in the food-rich but otherwise risky Asiatic surroundings. As the only astronomer in the group, I was to be Chairman of Astronomy and put new life into Tashkent Observatory. A former military geodetic observatory, it had been reorganized by V V Stratonoff, but after three decades of respectable research activity it had somehow fallen into disarray during the Revolution, and it was now to be made an integral part of the new Turkestan University. Rail communications in Russia were at that time in a state of disorganization, and so it was no wonder that our legendary trek of 3000 km from Moscow to Tashkent took 70 days, from end of January to beginning of April, 1919. ... After arrival in April, 1919, I served for two years on the faculty of the newly organized Turkestan University, with my main concern being the revitalization of the Tashkent Observatory.
In 1921 after only knowing each other for a short time, Öpik married Vera Oreshkina in 1921. Vera had been born on 17 July 1901, in Don Oblast, Russia.

Publishing was difficult, in fact almost impossible, for Öpik in Tashkent and he decided to make efforts to return to Estonia, his beloved native land, which at that time had become an independent country. On 1 December 1921 Öpik was appointed to the University of Tartu where he worked at the Astronomical Observatory. He published two estimates of the distance to the Andromeda nebula M31, one in 1921 and the other in the following year, both based on an estimate of its mass derived from its observed velocity of rotation compared with its centripetal acceleration. Both are reasonable, the first being an overestimate, the second an underestimate. The two values come from using different mass-luminosity ratios. In the 1922 paper, he states that, assuming his distance estimate is reasonable [6]:-

... the nebula is a stellar universe comparable with our Galaxy.
This was confirmed by Edwin Hubble in 1923 using Henrietta Swan Leavitt's Cepheid variable period/luminosity relationship.

In 1922 Ernest and Vera Öpik's first daughter, Maija, was born. He submitted a thesis on meteor observations to the University of Tartu and was awarded a doctorate in 1923. Öpik was by this time publishing a remarkable number of papers: in 1922 eight of his papers appeared totalling 143 pages; in 1923, eight of his papers appeared totalling 152 pages; in 1924 nine works were published having a total of 479 pages. At the Astronomical Observatory in Tartu, Öpik had a research assistant Alide Piiri, who had been born on 30 June 1899, in Torila, Tartumaa. In 1926 Öpik had two children, a daughter called Inna with his wife, and a son, Uno, by Alide. At first his wife Vera did not know about Alide and Uno. Reasonably enough, she was very angry when she learnt about them but she came to accept the situation. Öpik set up a second home with Alide, had a second daughter Elina with his wife Vera, followed by two daughters Helgi and Tiiu with Alide.

In 1930 Öpik went to Harvard University in the United States where he spent much time over the following four years as a Visiting Scientist and Lecturer. He had been invited by Harlow Shapley, the director of the Observatory [6]:-

During his stay in the USA, Öpik created a lot of interest for meteors among the Harvard astronomers and thereby generated the later Harvard meteor programme. Already in 1932, Öpik discussed the influence of stellar perturbations on nearly parabolic ellipses, which 18 years later was to be an important mechanism in Oort's concept of the Comet Cloud surrounding the Sun. It is for this reason that Whipple, who started his professional career in 1931 at the Harvard College Observatory and who entered the field of meteor research because of Öpik's influence, always speaks of the "Öpik-Oort Comet Cloud".
Öpik returned to the Astronomical Observatory in Tartu in 1934 and there followed a number of happy years before World War II [9]:-
Estonia was overrun by the Red Army in 1940, and a year later by the Nazis. Ernst refused to let the small matters of war get in the way of his research. But in 1944, with the Red Army re-invading, he decided to flee. "I would go to the sea and drown myself rather than live under the Russians," he said. With the Red Army closing in, he ordered Alide and their three children to go by van to Tallinn while he put family possessions on a horse-drawn cart. Tallinn was under a thick pall of smoke from locals burning their papers before the Soviets arrived, destroying evidence of collusion with the Germans. The family sailed to Germany and lived for several years in camps as refugees. Ernst had also helped two of his daughters by Vera, Maija and Inna, to escape. They found their way to America, but the youngest, Elina, just 15, stayed with her mother. She would have no contact with her father until after Stalin's death almost a decade later, and did not see him for 34 years.
Arriving in Germany, Öpik, with Alide and family, went to Hamburg Observatory and was given hospitality until the war ended. After this a Baltic University was set up in Hamburg in March 1946 to provide education for displaced students and Öpik became Professor of Astronomy and the Rector for Estonian students. This University was always going to be a short-term venture so Öpik had to find permanent employment. In fact the University closed in 1949 but Öpik had left in 1948. The astronomers at Harvard learnt of Öpik's predicament and Eric Mervyn Lindsay (1907-1974) came to his help. Lindsay had been born in Northern Ireland and studied at Queen's University, Belfast. He went to Harvard University to undertake research for his doctorate which he was awarded in 1934. Lindsay had, therefore, been a research student at Harvard at the time Öpik worked there and, in fact, Öpik had been one of the examiners of Lindsay's Ph.D. thesis. Lindsay had returned to Northern Ireland in 1937 where he was appointed director of Armagh Observatory. In December 1947 Lindsay offered Öpik the position of Research Associate at Armagh Observatory and he arrived in Northern Ireland to take up the position in June 1948. He was accompanied by Alide and family.

Although Öpik continued to work at the Armagh Observatory for the rest of his career, he also made many visits to the University of Maryland in the United States beginning in 1956. Fred Singer writes in [15]:-

When I invited Öpik to the University of Maryland in 1956, I had never met him before. It was his work that attracted my attention. And it was his work habits that had a profound influence on my own scientific career. He steered me towards planets and satellites, and taught me to use simple physical principles in place of more obscure mathematical approaches.
D J Mullan writes in [12]:-
During the semester when he was in residence in Maryland, he usually taught a seminar on a research topic which was currently of interest to him. When I took the seminar (it happened to be about cometary break-up), I found that Dr Öpik had little or no time for teaching material which he considered as already well-established in the field of knowledge. He gave the impression of always wanting to be on the frontiers of knowledge, even in the classroom: anyone who took his seminar was expected, I suppose, to absorb the well-established material elsewhere.
A newspaper report in November 1962 may show more about Öpik's passionate dislike of Russians than anything else:-
College Park, Maryland. A world-famous astronomer says he will be pleasantly surprised if the Russian space vehicle now heading towards Mars adds any significant information on space science. Dr Ernest J Öpik, visiting research professor at the University of Maryland, said in an interview Thursday that the "Russians have contributed only five-tenths of one per cent" of the new information on space. "They (the Russians) profess to have sent huge payloads into space 10 to 100 times larger than any the United States are capable of sending," Dr Öpik said. "At the same time, however, 99.5 per cent of all new information on space has come from the United States probes.
In Northern Ireland, Eric Lindsay initiated the founding of the Irish Astronomical Journal in 1950 edited by Öpik. He remained as editor until he retired in 1981 at the age of 87. Even after this he continued as an associate editor up until his death in 1985.

Other than astronomy, the other passion in Öpik's life was music. He played the piano to a very high standard and he composed piano pieces which have been published. William McCrea writes [10]:-

On the evening in 1975 after the meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society at which he had received his Gold Medal, it fell to my lot to propose his health at dinner. ... I then indicated to him that the company would be pleased if he cared to say just a few words in reply. ... He got to his feet - and said nothing! He sang! I was too startled properly to take in the words - they seemed a graceful acknowledgement of the honour and of our congratulations upon it.
Öpik received many honours for his outstanding contributions to astronomy. He was elected to the Estonian Academy of Sciences (1938), the Royal Astronomical Society (1949), The Royal Irish Academy (1954), the National Academy of Sciences (United States) (1975), and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1977). He received honorary degrees by Queen's University, Belfast (1968) and the University of Sheffield (1977). Among many prizes and awards he received we mention the J Lawrence Smith Medal from the National Academy of Sciences (United States) (1960), the F C Leonard Medal of the International Meteoritical Society (1968), a Gold Medal from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1974), the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1975), the Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (1976), and the Louis Jacot Grand Prix, Pensée University, Paris (1978).

As a final comment, we note that Öpik's only son was Uno Öpik (1926-2005) who studied at Tartu High School, then left with his parents for Germany in 1944. He studied at the Baltic University 1946-48 after which he moved to Northern Ireland with his parents. He was awarded a Ph.D. from Queen's University, Belfast in 1954. He then taught physics and applied mathematics at several universities with his career mainly being at Queen's University, Belfast from 1962 to 1986. Uno Öpik married Liivi Vedo and their eldest son was Lembit Öpik (born 1965) who became a Liberal Democrat member of the British Parliament from 1997 to 2010. He was also a well-known television personality and currently presents radio and television shows.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson


List of References (19 books/articles)

Mathematicians born in the same country


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JOC/EFR September 2018
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