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Caltech Mourns the Passing of Maarten Schmidt, 1929-2022




Martin Schmidt, Professor of Astronomy, Frances L. Mosley, died at Caltech, on Saturday, September 17, 2022. At the age of 92. Schmidt is best known for his 1963 discovery of quasars – extremely bright and distant cosmic objects powered by active supermassive black holes.

Schmidt was born in December 1929 in Groningen, Netherlands. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Groningen, a doctorate from Leiden University in 1956, and a doctorate of science from Yale University in 1966.

After receiving his Ph.D., Schmidt worked as a postdoctoral at the Mount Wilson and Mount Palomar Observatory for two years as a fellow at Carnegie University. He then returned to Leiden University for a year before moving to the United States.

Schmidt joined the California Institute of Technology in 1959 as an associate professor of astronomy. He became full professor in 1964, institute professor in 1981, and Moseley professor in 1987. He retired and became Mosley Professor, Emeritus, in 1996. He also served as executive officer of astronomy from 1972 to 1975, and chair of the Department of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy from 1976 to 1978, and director of the Hill Observatories from 1978 to 1980.

After first coming to Caltech, Schmidt focused on the mass distribution and dynamics of galaxies. During this period, he published a research paper entitled “Rate of Star Formation”, in which he determined the relationship between the density of gas and the rate of star formation in a particular region. This relationship is known as Schmidt’s law.

Schmidt is best known for discovering quasars and measuring distances far from Earth. While studying the light spectra of radio sources, he noticed that a cosmic object called 3C 273 was producing spectral lines that were shifted to the red end of the spectrum, or “redshift,” indicating that the object was approximately 3 billion light-years away, far from our galaxy. Because the distant object was too bright to be a star, Schmidt came to the realization that the “quasi-stellar object” was the core of a forming galaxy, in which swirling disks of matter surround a supermassive black hole.


Since this pivotal observation in 1963, thousands of quasars have been identified. These objects were more common in the early universe and can be seen from Earth today because of the time it takes light to travel over such enormous distances. Schmidt’s work has given astronomers a deep insight into the history of our universe.

Schmidt has received numerous awards and honors, including the Kavli Prize for Astrophysics (2008); Bruce Medal (1992); James Craig Watson Medal (1991); Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1980); Henry Norris Russell Lecture (1978); The Helen B. Warner (1964). It was also on the cover time magazine on March 11, 1966.

He is survived by his three daughters: Anne, Marijke and Elizabeth.

A full obituary will follow at a later date.


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