Oort , Jan Hendrik
(1900–1992) Dutch astronomer
The son of a physician from Franeker in the Netherlands, Oort (ohrt) was educated at the University of Gröningen where he worked under Jacobus Kapteyn and gained his PhD in 1926. After a short period at Yale University in America he was appointed to the staff of the University of Leiden where he was made professor of astronomy in 1935 and from 1945 to 1970 served as director of the Leiden Observatory. He also served as director of the Netherlands Radio Observatory.
Oort's main interest was in the structure and dynamics of our Galaxy. In 1927 he succeeded in confirming the hypothesis of galactic rotation proposed by Bertil Lindblad. He argued that just as the outer planets appear to us to be overtaken and passed by the less distant ones in the solar system, so too with the stars if the Galaxy really rotated. It should then be possible to observe distant stars appearing to lag behind and be overtaken by nearer ones. Extensive observation and statistical analysis of the results would thus not only establish the fact of galactic rotation but also allow something of the structure and mass of the Galaxy to be deduced.
Oort was finally able to calculate, on the basis of the various stellar motions, that the Sun was some 30,000 light-years from the center of the Galaxy and took about 225 million years to complete its orbit. He also showed that stars lying in the outer regions of the galactic disk rotated more slowly than those nearer the center. The Galaxy does not therefore rotate as a uniform whole but exhibits what is known as ‘differential rotation’.
Oort was also one of the earliest of the established astronomers to see the potential of the newly emerging discipline of the 1940s, radio astronomy. As one of the few scientists free to do pure research in the war years, he interested Hendrik van de Hulst in the work that finally led to the discovery in 1951 of the 21-centimeter radio emission from neutral interstellar hydrogen.
By measuring the distribution of this radiation and thus of the gas clouds Oort and his Leiden colleagues lost little time in tracing the spiral structure of the galactic arms and made substantial improvements to the earlier work of William Morgan. They were also able to make the first investigation of the central region of the Galaxy: the 21-centimeter radio emission passed unabsorbed through the gas clouds that had hidden the center from optical observation. They found a huge concentration of mass there, later identified as mainly stars, and also discovered that much of the gas in the region was moving rapidly outward away from the center.
Oort made major contributions to two other fields of astronomy. In 1950 he proposed that a huge swarm of comets surrounded the solar system at an immense distance and acted as a cometary reservoir. A comet could be perturbed out of this Oort cloud by a star and move into an orbit taking it toward the Sun. In 1956, working with Theodore Walraven, he studied the light emitted from the Crab nebula, a supernova remnant. The light was found to be very strongly polarized and must therefore be synchrotron radiation produced by electrons moving at very great speed in a magnetic field.

Scientists. . 2011.

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