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World War II, Part III

September 4, 2014

By the time World War II began in Europe 75 years ago this week, many scientists had already left the continent for the United States. They continued their research until America entered the war two years later. Some then joined the war effort, others kept up their research, and others did both.

German astronomer Walter Baade, for example, had moved to the U.S. in 1931, and was working at the Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles. A few years later he was offered the directorship of Hamburg Observatory in Germany, and submitted the paperwork to prove his Aryan heritage. He decided to stay in California, though, where he had better facilities and a milder climate.

Even so, Baade maintained his support for Germany. He was classified as an “enemy alien,” but he was allowed to continue his research. With most of the other astronomers gone and L.A. blacked out, Baade made important discoveries about the size of the universe and the nature of stars.

A few years earlier, Baade had helped a colleague escape the Reich. Although Rudolph Minkowski came from a family of distinguished scientists, he had been under threat of being sent to a concentration camp. Minkowski became an American citizen and worked on war projects at Caltech. After the war, he made important discoveries about dying stars and powerful galaxies.

Many other Europeans stayed in the U.S. after the war as well, helping American astronomy flourish through the rest of the 20th Century.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014


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