Written by Alex Preston
Since Armagh Observatory’s establishment in 1790, many remarkable figures have paved the way in studying stellar astrophysics, the Sun, Solar System astronomy, and Earth’s climate. Of all these figures, however, perhaps the most extraordinary individual is Ernst Julius Öpik. Öpik was a brilliant Estonian astronomer and astrophysicist who moved in 1948 to Northern Ireland. His extensive interests encompassed, among others, stellar structure, the age and evolution of the Universe, the physical theory of meteors, statistical analysis of Earth−crossing minor bodies, mechanics of celestial collisions, but also the initial cause of the Ice Ages.
Öpik was born in Kunda, Lääne-Viru, Governorate of Estonia, then a part of the Russian Empire on 22 October 1893. He went to the University of Moscow to specialise in the study of minor bodies, such as asteroids, comets, and meteors. He completed his doctorate at the University of Tartu.
Opposed to communism, he had volunteered for the White army during the Russian civil war, and in 1921 he returned to an independent Estonia where he was appointed astronomer and associate professor at Tartu University (1921–44). He began working at the Observatory near the university city of Tartu, where he was to build his reputation as one of the world’s finest astronomers.
As an astronomer, his reputation had reached such dizzy heights that in 1930, aged only 37, he became a visiting professor at Harvard University. Friends said that when he was living with his wife Alide, the pre-war years were the happiest of his life. Such carefree times did not last. The Red Army overran Estonia 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.
Nevertheless, in 1944, with the Red Army reinvading, 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 putting 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 collusion evidence with the Germans. The family sailed to Germany and lived for several years in camps as refugees.
Ernst became the rector of a Baltic University for displaced persons and even published papers on astronomy from his refugee camp in Germany. When the Baltic University was threatened with closure, Eric M. Lindsay, Director of Armagh Observatory, obtained funds from Northern Ireland’s government to establish a special post for him as research associate at Armagh. Öpik had been one of Lindsay’s PhD examiners at Harvard. He accepted the position, moving to Armagh in 1948, aged 54, with his wife, her sister, and his three children. They lived at 30 College Hill, Armagh. Despite being offered several positions elsewhere, he was loyal to the Observatory and remained on the staff for the next thirty-three years. However, he kept his connection with the USA as a visiting professor at the University of Maryland, where he went for several months every year. At the age of 80, he became Acting Director (1974–6) of the Armagh Observatory after Lindsay’s sudden death.
To Be Continued