The second instalment on Ernst Öpik is here.
Written by Alex Preston
Öpik was regarded very highly in the United States. Newspapers acknowledged his work across the vast nation, ranging from New York and Washington, to name a few. Many highly regarded U.S newspapers, such as the San Francisco Examiner, The Boston Globe, and The Los Angeles Times, all note Öpik’s scientific work, often with very high praise.
He may mainly have been popular in America during the 1960s as it was the height of Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. For a former Eastern European scientist, especially one as highly regarded as Öpik, to openly criticise the Soviet Union regarding their space endeavours would be particularly pleasing to American headline writers. Comments like how Öpik would be “‘pleasantly surprised ‘if the Soviet space vehicle hurtling towards Mars adds anything significant to the knowledge of space.”, were particularly pleasing to a Cold War American audience.
By 1970 he had published almost 300 research papers and over 130 reviews and 345 further titles published in the Irish Astronomical Journal, of which he was editor (1950–81) and later associate-editor until his death. It was known as ‘Öpik’s journal’, which he practically ran as a one-man operation. A modest man, he appeared to have little personal ambition, but he received many international honours in his lifetime, winning most of the outstanding astronomical awards. Perhaps his greatest reward in Ernst’s eyes was the naming of Asteroid 2099 in his honour to mark his 85th birthday in 1978. He believed there to be no more “exciting way” to acknowledge his contributions to astronomy.
Öpik, evidently an outstanding astronomer, lived most of his life with his head amongst the stars. Despite being such a dedicated scientist, he was described by the Armagh Observatory Director Dr Eric M Lindsay as a ‘loyal friend and colleague’. Lindsay believed Ernst to be a “very human person with an understanding of, and sympathy for, our many frailties and, thank goodness, with a keen sense of humour. He will take infinite patience to explain the simplest problem to a person, young or old, with enthusiasm for astronomy but lacking astronomical background and training.”
This passion for sharing his wealth of knowledge can be demonstrated throughout his time in Northern Ireland. In a lecture in Omagh in 1958, Öpik appealed to the audience, encouraging them to create a new dynamic astronomy scene in Northern Ireland. In the audience that night was Dermott Mullan, who, previously having written to Öpik, met the famous astronomer for the first time on the night. Mullan is a prime example of an individual inspired by the work of Öpik, whom then himself went on to do pioneering work alongside Öpik and Dr Lindsay at the Observatory in later years. This is just one of many examples in which Öpik engaged and advocated for the growth of Northern Ireland’s space community.
To Öpik, it did not matter who you were; he believed everyone deserved an opportunity to explore what happens beyond our tiny planet. He was very keen to engage the youth of tomorrow, as shown by many letters sent to Öpik from children who had been to visit the Observatory. One young girl expressed her gratefulness to Dr Öpik for showing her class the Observatory and its exciting contents. She expressed delight in many of the Observatory’s features, but “best of all I liked the model with the world going around the sun.” This letter and much more display the very best of Öpik’s character and commitment to expanding his range of knowledge to the next generation.
Öpik, despite being ‘one of the intellectual giants of the Earth’ and ‘one of the few truly outstanding astronomers of our century’, also had a variety of other talents. At an early age had to choose a career between astronomy or music. Music was much more than a hobby to Öpik. He played the piano and composed many pieces for the piano and voice. The style could be described as Nordic Neo-Romantic. The compositions of Öpik range from the two-page, appealing Kirv to the elaborate, ambitious compositions, Kevadmüsterrium (Mystery of Spring) and the Suite Fantastique. Opik’s visions and mystiques have their origins in his infinite astral world.
Öpik also dabbled in poetry, with much of his work relating to his ambitions in science. His poem ‘The Internationale of Light’ best demonstrates this:
‘Friends, ascend in wisdom’s sunlit spaces,
let unerring be our wary stride,
A call resounding through the ages Wakens all to search for what is right.
this thorny path of sages,
Blue of heav’n,
abyss are side by side!’
This poem feels like a rallying cry to scientists to unite and march together into finding truth in their work. Öpik was often more philosophical than scientific. At first sight, Ernst Öpik appeared to be simply a meticulous and dedicated and possibly somewhat pedantic scholar, attentive to the details of problems most others would gloss over. Telling of his life requires more than an account of wide-ranging, pioneering contributions to astronomical and planetary science; other aspects of his journey through life bring to mind the image of a real-life Dr Zhivago.