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Off to War

December 7, 2016

AUDIO: The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by air, President Roosevelt has just announced.

75 years ago today, the United States was plunged into World War II. And within days of the attack on Pearl Harbor, many thousands of men had volunteered to join the war effort — including astronomers and other scientists. And for the next four years, American scientific knowledge and know-how were concentrated on winning the war.

Some astronomers and astronomy departments taught pilots and sailors how to navigate by the stars. Others worked on rockets, the optics for bomb sights, and the atom bomb. Just before the war started, in fact, the leader of the bomb project, J. Robert Oppenheimer, had helped develop the concept of black holes.

And still more astronomers worked on the developing technology of radar. Their work helped radio astronomy blossom when the war ended.

Most observatories scaled back their work during the war. The Palomar Observatory in California, for example, stopped preparing the mirror for what would become the world’s largest telescope.

But a few astronomers did keep looking at the stars. Most were too old or frail to serve in the military, or they were barred from war activities because they were German. With many American cities blacked out, these astronomers were treated to dark skies. They made important discoveries about the size of the universe, the nature of stars, and more — advancing scientific knowledge during World War II. More tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield


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