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World War II, Part II

September 3, 2014

On September 3rd, 1939, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made a simple announcement to his countrymen: This country is at war with Germany. Two days after Germany invaded Poland, Britain and France declared war, marking the start of World War II.

By that time, many leading European scientists had already left Europe for the United States, including Albert Einstein.

The list also included quite a few astronomers. Their departure, and the coming battles, would shut down research in Europe for years. Some of the astronomers continued their studies in the U.S. Others joined the war effort, contributing their expertise to training programs and military research; more about that tomorrow.

Some European observatories were shut down or converted to military use — they monitored the weather or provided training in celestial navigation, for example. And the war wasn’t very kind to many of the facilities. Quite a few were damaged, and some were completely demolished.

One example was Pulkovo Observatory in Russia. It was established a century before the war began by Friedrich von Struve, an ancestor of the first director of McDonald Observatory. When the German army besieged nearby Leningrad, staff members managed to save the optics from the observatory’s telescopes and much of its library. But the observatory itself was pounded into rubble. It was rebuilt after the war, though, and returned to service in the 1950s.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014

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