The Vetlesen Prize

Nomination Letters

November 29, 1963

Dr. Albert E. Whitford, Director
Lick Observatory
Mount Hamilton, California

Dear Albert:

I am writing as a member of the Vetlesen Award Committee of Columbia University to ask for your advice in connection with the award of the Vetlesen Prize in 1964.

The Vetlesen Prize, first awarded in 1960, was established by the G. Unger Vetlesen Foundation as an award "for outstanding achievement in the sciences resulting in a clear understanding of the earth, its history or its relation to the universe". The Foundation was formed in 1955 by the late George Unger Vetlesen who was president and chairman of the Norwegian-American Line Agency, Inc. and one of the founders of the Scandinavian Airline System, Inc.

The Award is to be made every two years provided a worthy candidate in the opinion of the Award Committee is presented. Any person in any country may be nominated for the prize. It is the intention of the foundation, which asked Columbia University to administer the Award, that the prize shall rank in dignity and significance with others that now recognize the achievements of the world's leading scholars and scientists in other fields. In terms of material reward, the Vetlesen Prize consists of a gold medal, a sum of $25,000, and support for the publication of the recipient's papers.

The recipient of the Vetlesen Prize in 1960 was Dr. Maurice Ewing. In 1962 Professor H. Jeffreys and Professor F. A. Vening Meinesz shared the Prize.

Although it is expected that the Prize will normally be awarded for research in the fields of the Earth Sciences it can also be awarded for research in Astronomy.

To me it would seem that Professor J. H. Oort is eminently qualified for the reward. His work on the structure and dynamics of our galaxy, on the properties of interstellar matter and on the origin of comets is an outstanding contribution, and one that in my opinion contains results that are of decisive importance in reaching a "clear understanding of the earth, its history or its relation to the universe".

At the coming meeting of the Vetlesen Award Committe on December 17, 1963,
I wish to nominate Professor Oort for the Award. I should be most grateful to you if you would let me know your reaction in this connection. In particular, I should also welcome suggestions of other names to be considered for the Award.

May I ask you to regard the contents of this letter as strictly confidential. This would seem particularly important in view of the fact that the Vetlesen Award Committee may decide, in spite of Professor Oort's eminence as an astronomer, that the Award should go to someone whose work is more central in the area of research than is recognized through the Vetlesen Prize.


Bengt Stromgren



Dr. Maurice Ewing
Vetlesen Award Committee
Torrey Cliff
Palisades, New York

Dear Dr. Ewing:

Referring to the discussion at the last meeting of the Vetlesen Award Committee, I am herewith writing to you with regard to the 1964 Vetlesen Prize.

I wish to propose for discussion at the meeting on December 17, 1963, that the 1964 Prize, or one-half of it, be awarded to Professor J. H. Oort, Director of the Leiden Observatory.

In proposing that the award be given to J. H. Oort I would like to refer, first, to the conditions by which the Vetlesen Award Committee is guided, namely that the Vetlesen Prize is awarded "for outstanding achievement in the sciences resulting in a clear understanding of the earth, its history or its relation to the universe".

If, today, we have a clearer understanding of the history of the earth and its relation to the universe than we had three or four decades ago, we owe this partly to astronomers who, through their research work, have provided some of the foundations for the investigations in question, namely a detailed knowledge of the structure, kinematics, and dynamics of our galaxy with respect to its stellar as well as interstellar component and insight into the nature of the forces of evolution at work in every part of the galaxy. Among the astronomers who have thus contributed, Professor Oort in my opinion ranks highest.

J. H. Oort made an outstanding contribution when he showed in 1927, through an analysis of the radial velocities of relatively distant high-luminosity stars, that our galaxy rotates around an axis at right angles to the plane of the milky way and determined the speed of rotation and the direction to the center of rotation. Also in the 1920's, he investigated the properties of high-velocity stars; he was the first to recognize the great importance of the clues provided by these stars and initiated studies of the galactic-halo stars that have been decisive for the formation of our ideas of the evolution of our galaxy.

In the 1930's, J. H. Oort carried out a penetrating and comprehensive analysis of the observational material then available for the determination of the stellar distribution in our galaxy and in the 1940's he extended his investigations of the structure of the galaxy with emphasis on the properties of the interstellar medium.

During the 1950’s and up to present, J.H. Oort has been engaged in work on the 21 cm radio radiation emitted by interstellar hydrogen in our galaxy. Through this work and very extensive investigations carried out by J.H. Oort's associates under his leadership, very great advances have been made in the knowledge of our galaxy. Spiral-arm structure has been revealed and studied in detail to much greater distances than had been reached through optical-astronomy investigations. The center of the galaxy has been located with high accuracy and detailed studies of the structure and dynamics of the central regions of our galaxy have been made. Altogether, these investigations have yielded results of crucial importance to nearly every field of stellar astronomy and astrophysics.

In addition to his work on galactic problems, J. H. Oort has carried out a very important investigation of the orbits of comets. Through an analysis of the distribution of the semi-major axes of the original orbits of comets (before they are appreciably perturbed by the planets during passage through the inner parts of the solar system), Oort showed convincingly that a very considerable fraction of all comets when seen are passing through the inner regions of the solar system for the first time. This conclusion led to a study of the distant reservoir of cometary material in the outskirts of the solar system and the nature of its changes under the influence of the gravitational perturbations from nearby stars.

In a previous letter to you I mentioned that I had written to a number of astronomers in this country and in Europe to obtain their advice in connection with the award of the Vetlesen Prize in 1964. To date I have received replies from the great majority of those to whom I wrote. I enclose photostat copies of all the replies received.

I should like to add that I fully realize that the Vetlesen Prize will normally be awarded for outstanding achievement in the Earth Sciences. However, in my opinion the contributions of J. H. Oort are such that they justify an award for achievements in the field of Astronomy. In this connection I would like to refer in particular to the letters by Dr. N. U. Mayall, Director of the Kitt Peak National Observatory, and Dr. A. E. Whitford, Director of the Lick Observatory of the University of California.

Sincerely yours,

Bengt Stromgren

December 9, 1963

Dr. Bengt Stromgren
Insititute for Advanced Study
Princeton, New Jersey

Dear Bengt:

This is the first letter I write upon my return to Tucson, following my very pleasant visit with you and Sigrid yesterday and the evening before. I am very glad to respond to your request to express my views about your proposal to recommend Dr. J. H. Oort for the Vetlesen Award.

Jan Oort's contributions to our knowledge of the relationship of the earth as an astronomical body to our own stellar system, in my opinion, constitute the most significant work of our generation. In fact, I believe that his work on the dynamics, structure, and composition of the Galaxy, and on the nature of comets in the solar system, rank along with those of Edwin Hubble for the extragalactic universe.

One cannot think of such properties of the Galaxy as its rotation, dynamics of the several stellar population subsystems, spiral structure, and properties of its nuclear region without connecting our first firm knowledge, and its most penetrating interpretation, with the name of Oort. Also, the most important, major advance in our knowledge of galactic structure, which is related to the use of the radio region radiation from neutral hydrogen, is largely due to Oort's work and his inspired leadership. It is safe to say that for many years Oort and his group of radio astronomers in Holland has led the rest of the world in this field by a considerable margin.

Whenever questions as to the most reliable values of the size of the Galaxy, the distance of the sun from its center, the speed of the sun in its galactic orbit, the galactic mass, the average density of matter in space, and the systematic motions of the stars are desired, one always turns to the most recent work and discussions by Oort. The reason, of course, is that he has not only contributed much of this information by his own work, but that he has also convinced astronomers throughout the world that he has the soundest judgment in appraising the current situation with respect to the most accurate and reliable numerical data relating to these characteristics. The detailed documentation of all his work would be most impressive, and I imagine that this will be done for the Vetlesen Award Committee.

In conclusion, I should like to use this opportunity to point out what I think is an unfortunate situation with respect to the fullest and proper recognition for the kind of astronomical research that has been done by Hubble and by Oort. This is the fact that the conditions establishing the Nobel Prizes preclude their award to astronomers. It is my opinion, which I know is shared by many of my colleagues, that Hubble definitely deserved such recognition. In the case of Oort, I think the Vetlesen Award Committee has a fine opportunity to adopt a liberal interpretation of the Award conditions, in order to place it on a par with that of a Nobel Prize, by awarding it to Oort. His contributions to astronomy are so numerous and fundamental that it is no exaggeration to state they compare equally well with those achievements in chemistry and physics that have been recognized by Nobel Prizes.

I hope that you will successfully plead the case for our very distinguished colleague, Jan Oort, when the Vetlesen Award Committee meets in the near future.

With best wishes, and many thanks to you and Sigrid for your recent generous hospitality.

Sincerely yours,

N. U. Mayall

Observatory Director




Dr. Bengt Stromgren
The Institute for Advanced Study
Princeton, New Jersey

Dear Bengt:

If the Vetlesen Award Committee is disposed to consider candidates who have made outstanding contributions toward the understanding of the relation of the earth to the universe, I can think of no one more worthy than J. H. Oort. You have summarized his achievements very well in your letter, and I cannot add to the list of the significant contributions he has made. In any formal statement of his work that would accompany the actual award many details could be filled out, but the topics you have mentioned are certainly the important ones.

I therefore support your suggestion strongly. It is fortunate that the Vetlesen Award has been set up in terms which recognize an important area of scientific endeavor and intellectual achievement in a broad enough manner so that outstanding candidates in the fields of both the earth sciences and astronomy can be recognized. These areas have been excluded from the deliberations of the Nobel Committees. If a case is to be made for an astronomer in one of the early years of the awards, I think you have chosen the right person and the right time.



A. E. Whitford




December 4, 1963

The Institute for Advanced Study
School of Mathematics
U. S. A.
Dear Stromgren:

Your letter of November 29 regarding the Vetlesen Prize of 1964 has been the object of my very careful attention. I fully agree with you that Professor J.H. Oort is eminently qualified for the reward. I share your view that certain of Professor Oort's contributions are of deep significance with regard to the relation of the earth to the universe. Among the astronomers and geophysicists whom I know well I could mention the names of several eminent scholars who would also qualify for the Vetlesen Prize. However I personally feel that Professor Oort's results in the field covered by the Vetlesen Prize are the most outstanding. Hence I am happy to learn that you plan to nominate Professor Oort for the Award, You may make my comments on this matter known to the Vetlesen Award Committee if you wish.

Very sincerely yours,




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