Harlow Shapley

Harlow Shapley

Harlow Shapley
Born November 2, 1885
Nashville, Missouri
Died October 20, 1972(1972-10-20) (aged 86)
Boulder, Colorado
Nationality American
Fields Astronomy
Alma mater University of Missouri, Princeton University
Doctoral advisor Henry Norris Russell
Doctoral students Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin
Known for Determining the correct position of the Sun within the Milky Way Galaxy
Notable awards Henry Draper Medal (1926)
Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1934)
Rittenhouse Medal (1935)
Bruce Medal (1939)

Harlow Shapley (November 2, 1885 – October 20, 1972) was an American astronomer.[1][2]

He used RR Lyrae stars to correctly 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]


  • Biography 1
  • Institute on Religion in an Age of Science 2
  • Family 3
  • Honors 4
  • Quotes 5
  • Bibliography 6
  • Sources 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


He was born to Willis and Sarah (née Stowell) Shapley[5] on a farm in Nashville, Missouri, and dropped out of school with only the equivalent of a fifth-grade education. 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.

In 1907, at the age of 22, Harlow 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 Harlow later explained he couldn't pronounce, Harlow chose the next subject, Astronomy.

Post-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.[6] He was the first to realize that the Milky Way Galaxy was much larger than previously believed, and that the Sun's place in the galaxy was in a nondescript location. This discovery by Shapley is a key part of the Copernican principle, according to which the Earth is not at the center of our Solar System, our galaxy, or our Universe.

Shapley (first standing from the right) at a Science Service board meeting in 1941.

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 D.C. 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.[7] 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 was 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.[8] 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.

At the time of the debate, Shapley was working at the Edward Charles Pickering as director of the Harvard College Observatory.

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.[9] Hubble's findings went on to reshape fundamentally the scientific view of the universe.[10]

He served as director of the HCO from 1921 to 1952. During this time, he hired Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, 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.

He 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.

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 to 1971.

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).

He became President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1947. 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".[11] Other global threats he listed were: drugs that suppressed the desire for sex; boredom; world war with weapons of mass destruction; a plague epidemic.[12]

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

In 1953, he wrote the "Liquid Water Belt" which gave scientific credence to the ecosphere theory of Hubertus Strughold.[13]

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

In addition to astronomy, Shapley held a lifelong interest in myrmecology, the study of ants.

He died in a nursing home in Boulder, Colorado on October 20, 1972.[1]

Institute on Religion in an Age of Science

Although Shapley was an agnostic, he was greatly interested in religion.[14][15] 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).[16]


He 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 and four sons, one of whom is mathematician and economist Lloyd Shapley, who won a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2012. [17]



Named after him


'Some piously record "In the beginning God", but I say "In the beginning hydrogen".'

'Theories crumble, but good observations never fade.'

'No one trusts a model except the man who wrote it; everyone trusts an observation, except the man who made it.' [24]

'When one of our inevitable super-geniuses of the future discovers some new mankind-annihilating device, and this genius is insane, perhaps undetectably insane, he will willingly perish as he murders the rest'.[25]


  • Shapley, Harlow (1972). Galaxies. The Harvard books on astronomy. Harvard University Press.  
  • 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. 


  • – ObituaryNature


  1. ^ a b "Dr. Harlow Shapley Dies at 86. Dean of American Astronomers. Dr. Harlow Shapley, Dean of American Astronomers, Dies at 86".  
  2. ^  
  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.  
  6. ^ "On the Nature and Cause of Cepheid Variation," , 40, 448 (1914)Astrophysical JournalShapley, H.,
  7. ^ "The Scale of the Universe" , 2, 169, pp. 171–217 (1921)Bulletin of the National Research CouncilShapley, H. and Curtis, H. D.,
  8. ^ "The 'Great Debate': What Really Happened" , 7, 169 (1976)Journal for the History of AstronomyHoskin, M.,
  9. ^ "Hubble Views the Star that Changed the Universe". HubbleSite NewsCenter. Retrieved 23 May 2011. 
  10. ^ ^ Marcia Bartusiak (2010). The Day We Found the Universe. Random House Digital, Inc. pp. x–xi.
  11. ^ "He's anti-genius".  
  12. ^ "People: Inside Dopester". Time Magazine. January 6, 1947. 
  13. ^ James F. Kasting, How to find a habitable planet. pg 127
  14. ^ Kragh, Helge (2004). Matter and spirit in the Universe: scientific and religious preludes to modern cosmology. OECD Publishing. p. 237.  
  15. ^ I.S. Glass (2006). "Harlow Shapley: Defining our galaxy". Revolutionaries of the Cosmos: The Astro-physicists. Oxford University Press. pp. 265–266.  
  16. ^ "Varieties of Belief" (Review of Science Ponders Religion) by Edmund Fuller, December 18, 1960, New York Times
  17. ^ "Martha Betz Shapley".  
  18. ^ "Henry Draper Medal". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 19 February 2011. 
  19. ^ "Past Recipients of the Rumford Prize". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 19 February 2011. 
  20. ^ "Winners of the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society". Royal Astronomical Society. Retrieved 19 February 2011. 
  21. ^ "Past Winners of the Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal". Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Retrieved 19 February 2011. 
  22. ^ "Harlow Shapley Wins Pius XI Prize. Harvard Observatory Chief Receives Astronomy Award of Pontifical Academy".  
  23. ^ "Grants, Prizes and Awards". American Astronomical Society. Archived from the original on 22 December 2010. Retrieved 19 February 2011. 
  24. ^ John Norbury. "Ian Roulstone and John Norbury describe improvements in the accuracy of climate predictions. – Project Syndicate". Project Syndicate. Retrieved 11 January 2015. 
  25. ^ Paul F. Ellis (December 30, 1946). "Most potent killer is believed genius maniac".  

West, D., Harlow Shapley Biography of an Astronomer – The Man Who Measured the Universe, C&D Publications, 2015

External links