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Harlow Shapley (November 2, 1885 – October 20, 1972) was an American scientist, head of the Harvard College Observatory (1921–1952), and political activist during the latter New Deal and Fair Deal.[1][2]

Harlow Shapley
BornNovember 2, 1885
DiedOctober 20, 1972(1972-10-20) (aged 86)
Alma materUniversity of Missouri, Princeton University
Known forDetermining correct position of Sun within Milky Way Galaxy; head of Harvard College Observatory (1921–1952)
Children5, including
Scientific career
Doctoral advisorHenry Norris Russell
Doctoral studentsGeorges Lemaître, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Shapley used RR Lyrae stars to estimate the size of the Milky Way Galaxy and the Sun's position within it by using parallax.[3] In 1953 he proposed his "liquid water belt" theory, now known as the concept of a habitable zone.[4]



Shapley (first standing from the right) at a Science Service board meeting in 1941
Members of the Independent Voters Committee of the Arts and Sciences for Roosevelt visit FDR at the White House (October 1944). From left: Van Wyck Brooks, Hannah Dorner, Jo Davidson, Jan Kiepura, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Gish, Dr. Harlow Shapley
Progressive Citizens of America members, 1947. From left, seated, Henry A. Wallace, Elliott Roosevelt; standing, Dr. Harlow Shapley, Jo Davidson

Shapley was born on a farm in Nashville, Missouri, to Willis and Sarah (née Stowell) Shapley,[5] and dropped out of school with only the equivalent of a fifth-grade education.[clarification needed] After studying at home and covering crime stories as a newspaper reporter, Shapley returned to complete a six-year high school program in only two years, graduating as class valedictorian.[citation needed]

In 1907, Shapley went to study journalism at the University of Missouri. When he learned that the opening of the School of Journalism had been postponed for a year, he decided to study the first subject he came across in the course directory. Rejecting Archaeology, which Shapley later claimed he could not pronounce, he chose the next subject, Astronomy.[6]


After graduation, Shapley received a fellowship to Princeton University for graduate work, where he studied under Henry Norris Russell and used the period-luminosity relation for Cepheid variable stars (discovered by Henrietta Swan Leavitt) to determine distances to globular clusters. He was instrumental in moving astronomy away from the idea that Cepheids were spectroscopic binaries, and toward the concept that they were pulsators.[7]

He realized that the Milky Way Galaxy was far larger than previously believed, and that the Sun's place in the galaxy was in a nondescript location. This discovery supports the Copernican principle, according to which the Earth is not at the center of our Solar System, our galaxy, or our Universe. Shapley participated in the "Great Debate" with Heber D. Curtis on the nature of nebulae and galaxies and the size of the Universe. The debate took place on April 26, 1920, in the hall of the United States National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC. Shapley took the side that spiral nebulae (what are now called galaxies) are inside our Milky Way, while Curtis took the side that the spiral nebulae are 'island universes' far outside our own Milky Way and comparable in size and nature to our own Milky Way. This issue and debate are the start of extragalactic astronomy, while the detailed arguments and data, often with ambiguities, appeared together in 1921.[8]

Characteristic issues were whether Adriaan van Maanen had measured rotation in a spiral nebula, the nature and luminosity of the exploding novae and supernovae seen in spiral galaxies, and the size of our own Milky Way. However, Shapley's actual talk and argument given during the Great Debate were completely different from the published paper. Historian Michael Hoskin says "His decision was to treat the National Academy of Sciences to an address so elementary that much of it was necessarily uncontroversial.", with Shapley's motivation being only to impress a delegation from Harvard who were interviewing him for a possible offer as the next Director of Harvard College Observatory.[9] With the default by Shapley, Curtis won the debate. The astronomical issues were soon resolved in favor of Curtis' position when Edwin Hubble discovered Cepheid variable stars in the Andromeda Galaxy.[10][11]

At the time of the debate, Shapley was working at the Mount Wilson Observatory, where he had been hired by George Ellery Hale. After the debate, however, he was hired to replace the recently deceased Edward Charles Pickering as director of the Harvard College Observatory (HCO).

He is also known to have incorrectly opposed Edwin Hubble's observations that there are additional galaxies in the universe other than the Milky Way. Shapley fiercely critiqued Hubble and regarded his work as junk science. However, after he received a letter from Hubble showing Hubble's observed light curve of V1, he withdrew his criticism. He reportedly told a colleague, "Here is the letter that destroyed my universe." He also encouraged Hubble to write a paper for a joint meeting of the American Astronomical Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science.[10] Hubble's findings went on to reshape fundamentally the scientific view of the universe.[11]

He served as director of the HCO from 1921–52. During this time, he hired Cecilia Payne, who, in 1925, became the first person to earn a doctorate at Radcliffe College in the field of astronomy, for work done at Harvard College Observatory.

From 1941 he was on the original standing committee of the Foundation for the Study of Cycles. He also served on the board of trustees of Science Service, now known as Society for Science & the Public, from 1935-71.[citation needed]

In the 1940s, Shapley helped found government funded scientific associations, including the National Science Foundation. He is also responsible for the addition of the "S" in UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).[citation needed]

On November 14, 1946, Shapley appeared under subpoena by the House Un-American Activities Committee in his role as member of the Independent Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions, "major political arm of the Russophile left", for opposing U.S. Representative Joseph William Martin Jr. during mid-term elections that year.[12]

In 1947, he became President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In his inaugural address he referred to the danger of the "genius maniac" and proposed the elimination of "all primates that show any evidence of signs of genius or even talent".[13]

Other global threats he listed were: drugs that suppressed the desire for sex; boredom; world war with weapons of mass destruction; a plague epidemic.[14]

In 1950, Shapley was instrumental in organizing a campaign in academia against the controversial US bestseller book (considered by scientists to be pseudoscience) Worlds in Collision by Russian expatriate psychiatrist Immanuel Velikovsky.

Personal lifeEdit

Shapley married Martha Betz (1891–1981) in April 1914. She assisted her husband in astronomical research both at Mount Wilson and at Harvard Observatory. She produced numerous articles on eclipsing stars and other astronomical objects. They had one daughter, editor and writer Mildred Shapley Matthews; and four sons, including mathematician and economist Lloyd Shapley, who won a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2012,[15] and NASA executive Willis Shapley.[16]

Although Shapley was an agnostic, he was greatly interested in religion.[17][18]

Shapley died in a nursing home in Boulder, Colorado on October 20, 1972, shortly before his 87th birthday.[1]



Named after him are:


Shapley wrote many books on astronomy and the sciences. Among these was Source Book in Astronomy (New York: McGraw–Hill, 1929—co-written with Helen E. Howarth, also on the staff of the Harvard College Observatory), the first of the publisher's series of source books in the history of the sciences.

In 1953, he wrote the "Liquid Water Belt" which gave scientific credence to the ecosphere theory of Hubertus Strughold.[25]

In his 1957 book "Of Stars and Men", Shapley proposed the term Metagalaxies for what are now called superclusters.[citation needed]

Shapley attended Institute on Religion in an Age of Science conferences at Star Island and was the editor of the book Science Ponders Religion (1960).[26]

  • Shapley, Harlow (1972). Galaxies. The Harvard books on astronomy. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674340510.
  • Shapley, Harlow (1969). Through Rugged Ways to the Stars. Scribner.
  • Shapley, Harlow (1967). Beyond the Observatory. Scribner.
  • Shapley, Harlow (1964). The View from a Distant Star: Man's Future in the Universe. Dell Publishing, Co.
  • Shapley, Harlow (1960). Source book in astronomy, 1900–1950. Source books in the history of the sciences. Harvard University Press.
  • Shapley, Harlow (1958). Of Stars and Men: The Human Response to an Expanding Universe. Beacon Press.
  • Shapley, Harlow (1958). A Census of Northern Galaxies in an Area of 3600 Square Degrees. Harvard College Observatory. Annals, v. 88, no. 7. Beacon Press.
  • Shapley, Harlow (1953). Climatic Change. Harvard University Press.
  • Shapley, Harlow (1948). Galactic and Extragalactic Studies, XVIII. Volume 36. National Academy of Sciences.
  • Shapley, Harlow (1936). Time and Its Mysteries. Series 1:Lectures given on the James Arthur Foundation, New York University. New York University Press.
  • Shapley, Harlow (1934). The Angular Diameters of Bright Galaxies. The Observatory.
  • Shapley, Harlow (1930). Flights from Chaos: A Survey of Material Systems from Atoms to Galaxies, Adapted from Lectures at the College of the City of New York, Class of 1872 Foundation. Whittlesey House, McGraw–Hill Book Company, Inc.
  • Shapley, Harlow (1926). Starlight. George H. Doran Co.
  • Shapley, Harlow (1924). Descriptions and Positions of 2,829 New Nebulae ... Harvard College Observatory. Annals, v. 85, no. 6. The Observatory.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b "Dr. Harlow Shapley Dies at 86. Dean of American Astronomers. Dr. Harlow Shapley, Dean of American Astronomers, Dies at 86". New York Times. October 21, 1972. Retrieved 2014-01-15. Dr. Harlow Shapley, one of the world's best-known astronomers, died in a nursing home yesterday in Boulder, Colo., after a long illness. He was 86 years old.
  2. ^ Goldberg, Leo (January 1973). "Obituary: Harlow Shapley". Physics Today. 26 (1): 107–108. Bibcode:1973PhT....26a.107G. doi:10.1063/1.3127920. Archived from the original on 2013-09-27.
  3. ^ Bart J. Bok. Harlow Shapely 1885–1972 A Biographical Memoir. National Academy of Sciences
  4. ^ Richard J. Hugget, Geoecology: an evolutionary approach. pg 10
  5. ^ Hockey, Thomas (2009). The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers. Springer Publishing. ISBN 978-0-387-31022-0. Retrieved August 22, 2012.
  6. ^ Timothy Ferris (1977). The Red Limit: The Search for the Edge of the Universe. William Morrow & Co. ISBN 978-0-688-03176-3.
  7. ^ "On the Nature and Cause of Cepheid Variation," Shapley, H., Astrophysical Journal, 40, 448 (1914)
  8. ^ "The Scale of the Universe" Shapley, H. and Curtis, H. D., Bulletin of the National Research Council, 2, 169, pp. 171–217 (1921)
  9. ^ "The 'Great Debate': What Really Happened" Hoskin, M., Journal for the History of Astronomy, 7, 169 (1976)
  10. ^ a b "Hubble Views the Star that Changed the Universe". HubbleSite NewsCenter. Retrieved 23 May 2011.
  11. ^ a b Bartusiak, Marcia (April 7, 2009). The Day We Found the Universe (Hardcover)|format= requires |url= (help) (1st ed.). Pantheon. ISBN 978-0375424298.
  12. ^ Goodman, Walter (1968). The Committee: The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. p. 187. Retrieved January 7, 2018.
  13. ^ "He's anti-genius". Sarasota Herald-Tribune. January 9, 1947. p. 9.
  14. ^ "People: Inside Dopester". Time Magazine. January 6, 1947.
  15. ^ "Martha Betz Shapley obituary". New York Times. January 27, 1981. Retrieved 2014-01-15. Martha Betz Shapley, widow of Dr. Harlow Shapley, the astronomer, died Saturday in Tucson, Ariz. She was 90 years old. She was born in Kansas City, Mo., and graduated from the University of Missouri. ...
  16. ^ "Mr. Willis Shapley" (PDF). NASA History Newsletter (3). NASA. October 1, 1965. Retrieved July 18, 2019.
  17. ^ Kragh, Helge (2004). Matter and spirit in the Universe: scientific and religious preludes to modern cosmology. OECD Publishing. p. 237. ISBN 978-1-86094-469-7. Shapley was not committed to any particular model of the expanding universe, but he did have strong opinions about the relationship between astronomy and religion. A confirmed agnostic, in the postwar period he often participated in science-religion discussions, and in 1960 he edited a major work on the subject — Science Ponders Religion.
  18. ^ I.S. Glass (2006). "Harlow Shapley: Defining our galaxy". Revolutionaries of the Cosmos: The Astro-physicists. Oxford University Press. pp. 265–66. ISBN 9780198570998. Although a declared agnostic, Shapley was deeply interested in religion and was a genuinely 'religious' person from a philosophical point of view. 'I never go to church', he told Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, 'I am too religious.
  19. ^ "Henry Draper Medal". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved February 19, 2011.
  20. ^ "Past Recipients of the Rumford Prize". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved February 19, 2011.
  21. ^ "Winners of the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society". Royal Astronomical Society. Archived from the original on May 25, 2011. Retrieved February 19, 2011.
  22. ^ "Past Winners of the Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal". Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Retrieved February 19, 2011.
  23. ^ "Harlow Shapley Wins Pius XI Prize. Harvard Observatory Chief Receives Astronomy Award of Pontifical Academy". New York Times. December 1, 1941. Retrieved 2014-01-15. The Pope today attended the inauguration of the new academic year of the Pontifical Academy...
  24. ^ "Grants, Prizes and Awards". American Astronomical Society. Archived from the original on December 22, 2010. Retrieved February 19, 2011.
  25. ^ James F. Kasting, How to find a habitable planet. pg 127
  26. ^ "Varieties of Belief" (Review of Science Ponders Religion) by Edmund Fuller, December 18, 1960, New York Times

External linksEdit