Gart Westerhout: Celebrated astronomer

 

Gart Westerhout was an astronomer who gained international renown in the early 1950s when he helped chart the Milky Way galaxy with unprecedented precision, and who later created the astronomy programme at the University of Maryland in the United States.

Westerhout made the first of his achievements – principally in radio astronomy – in the Netherlands in the years after the Second World War. He was among the youngest in a pioneering group of scientists taught and led at the University of Leiden by the astronomer Jan Oort, who has been compared to a "modern Copernicus."

Westerhout joined the nascent field of radio astronomy and set out to study the heavens using radio waves emitted by stars, galaxies and other celestial bodies. conducted his earliest research on a wartime relic, a large radar antenna left behind by the German military and later commandeered by Dutch scientists.

Together with his colleagues, and on increasingly sophisticated equipment, Westerhout tracked the radio waves emitted by interstellar hydrogen gas to compile the first detailed map of the spiral structure of the Milky Way. "For the first time, we could see with some precision that what appears to be a random collection of stars up there is really organised," said Kurt Riegel, Westerhout's first doctoral student at Maryland who later headed the national astronomy centres at the National Science Foundation. "The radio observations ... allowed astronomers to get a handle on our own galaxy." Westerhout was not yet 30.

His work attracted the attention of scientist John Toll, a future president of the University of Maryland who at the time was building the school's physics department. In 1961, Westerhout received an invitation from Toll – "out of the blue," he recalled – to go to Maryland and create an astronomy programme.

He built a programme that later became a full-fledged department. "He basically got the programme going," said Stuart Vogel, the current department chair. "He was the one who hired a lot of our astronomers and made us into what we are."

Westerhout, who was born in The Hague, became interested in astronomy after seeing his architect father's design for a sanatarium for tuberculosis patients. He had drawn up plans for the ceiling of the recreation hall to be painted with the constellations and the signs of the zodiac, so the patients might have something to look at as they lay on their backs.

Westerhout fashioned his first telescope from an eyeglass lens and a magnifying glass. It helped him find a degree of comfort during the deprivations of the war. The skies darkened because of the black-outs, he wrote in a biographical sketch, and he had "a beautiful view of the skies."

In the US, where he became a naturalised citizen, Westerhout deepened his research through use of the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. Besides his work on mapping the Milky Way, he created the Westerhout Catalogue of radio sources in the cosmos, which include supernova remnants, colliding galaxies and what were later identified as quasars.

In 1977, Westerhout left Maryland to become scientific director at the US Naval Observatory.

Gart Westerhout, astronomer: born The Hague 15 June 1927; married (two daughters, two sons); died 14 October 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
News
i100
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown, daughter of the late singer Whitney Houston, poses at the premiere of
people
News
people
News
The frequency with which we lie and our ability to get away with it both increase to young adulthood then decline with age, possibly because of changes that occur in the brain
scienceRoger Dobson knows the true story, from Pinocchio to Pollard
Voices
The male menopause: those affected can suffer hot flushes, night sweats, joint pain, low libido, depression and an increase in body fat, among other symptoms
voicesSo the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Life and Style
health
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen