Research School of Astronomy & Astrophysics



Olin Eggen, former director of Mount Stromlo Observatory and Professor of Astronomy at the ANU (1966-1977), and one of the great figures of modern optical astronomy, suffered a severe heart attack on arrival at Canberra airport and died in Canberra Hospital on October 2. He was 79.

Eggen was born on a farm in Wisconsin in 1919, to a Norwegian father and a German-English mother. He grew up with a younger sister and brother in the town of Orfordville, WI, and worked his way through a science degree at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, bartending and playing the piano in nightclubs. He spent part of the war in occupied Europe as a courier for the US Office of Strategic Services, posing as a Swedish salesman for a ball-bearing company.

After the war, Eggen returned to the University of Wisconsin and took his PhD in astrophysics. At that time, Joel Stebbins and Albert Whitford in Madison had refined a new electronic technique to measure the brightnesses and colors of stars. This technique was called photoelectric photometry and was a great step forward in observational astrophysics. In 1946, the estimated size of the universe was about ten times smaller than we now believe it to be, and very little was known about how stars form, evolve and die. Photoelectric photometry was vitally important in bringing our knowledge up to its present state. Eggen began his research in astronomy using photoelectric photometry to study variable stars and star clusters, and he continued with this technique throughout his long career. (Photoelectric photometry remains the most precise way to measure brightnesses and colors of stars, but over the last 20 years most astronomers have moved to the TV-like charge-coupled devices which are quicker and much easier to use.)

Annual Report 1998

After his PhD, Eggen was hired at Lick Observatory in California where he worked until 1956, and in this period he made a couple of extended observing visits to Mount Stromlo. He then moved to the Royal Greenwich Observatory in Sussex, as chief assistant to the Astronomer Royal, returning to California for five years as Professor of Astronomy at Caltech. When Bart Bok left Mount Stromlo in 1966, Eggen succeeded him as director.

At that time, the joint UK-Australia program to build a large telescope near Coonabarabran had stalled. Eggen quickly moved to revitalise the project. As the telescope construction progressed, the Anglo Australian Telescope Board was faced with decisions about how to manage this bi-national facility. Strong differences of opinion emerged. In the end Eggen found himself isolated and resigned from the Board. The tensions from this period are now history, although they persisted for many years and still cast a shadow over Eggen's time in Australia. But there is no doubt that Eggen's effective interactions with politicians and senior bureaucrats in both countries were very important in making the telescope project happen.

Astrophysics was Eggen's life. His driving issues were how the Galaxy works and how the stars evolve. He worked about 15 hours a day, never took holidays, spent a week each month gathering data from photoelectric observations at the 40-inch telescope at Siding Spring, and otherwise lived a rather private and monastic life. In his recent memoir he wrote "What a glorious 50 years it has been ... a life on the dome floor, in the dark". As director of the observatories, astrophysics was always the guiding priority. He facilitated the construction of new instruments, hired wisely and protected his young researchers from extraneous duties. Somehow he also found time to produce 98 research papers during his period as director of Mount Stromlo. His directorship was a period of growth for optical astronomy in this country. By the end of his time at the ANU, Australia was recognised as a major player in international optical astronomy.

His scientific achievements include a spectacular paper on how our Galaxy formed. This paper, written in 1962 with his colleagues Lynden-Bell and Sandage, is known as ELS and is one of the most influential astrophysics papers ever written. Eggen is also famous for his work on the evolution of stars and on the properties of large loose groups of stars (the Eggen moving groups) that have a common origin and then move together through our Galaxy.

Underlying his private and sometimes gruff exterior, was a person of charm and wit and insight. In social moments, Eggen was a great story teller but the boundary between fact and fantasy was sometimes blurred. From England, he brought a red and black Austin Healey which became a familiar item on the Canberra roads in the late 1960s. He insisted that this car had three carburettors. This was not at all true, and his more outrageous stories were called "three carburettor stories" around the observatory.

After his directorship at Mount Stromlo, Eggen became staff astronomer at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, where he remained until he died. But he regarded Australia as home, and returned to Mount Stromlo each year for a visit. It seems fitting that he should have come back to Canberra to die. We shall miss him.