Sunday, March 1, 2009

March 1: George Ogden Abell

George Ogden Abell
March 1, 1927 – October 7, 1983

George Abell was an astronomer at UCLA. He worked as a research astronomer, teacher, administrator, popularizer of science and education, and skeptic. Abell received his B.S. (1951), M.S. (1952) and Ph.D. (1957) from the California Institute of Technology. He began his astronomical career as a tour guide at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

His best known work was his catalogue of clusters of galaxies collected during the Palomar Sky Survey. He analyzed their formation and evolution. He demonstrated that second-order clustering existed, disproving the hierarchical model of Carl Charlier. He also discovered how cluster luminosity could be used as a distance scale. He also collated a famous list of 86 planetary nebula in 1966 which includes Abell 39.

The Abell catalogue is an almost complete list of approximately 4,000 clusters containing at least thirty members up to a redshift of z = 0.2. The original catalogue of clusters in the northern hemisphere was published in 1958. The extended catalogue, including clusters in the southern hemisphere, was published posthumously in 1989 in collaboration with Harold G. Corwin and Ronald P. Olowin.

Abell also co-discovered periodic comet 52P/Harrington-Abell. Together with Peter Goldreich, he correctly determined that planetary nebulae evolve from red giants.

Abell served for over twenty years as a faculty member at the Summer Science Program for high school students. The program memorializes him with its Abell Scholarship Fund. He was involved in the production of the educational TV series Understanding Space and Time and Project Universe.

Abell was passionate about debunking pseudoscientific claims such as those by Immanuel Velikovsky. He was a co-founder of the Committee on Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) and contributed articles to their journal, The Skeptical Inquirer.

Abell served as president of the Cosmology Commission of the International Astronomical Union and as president of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1970. He was chairman of the UCLA Astronomy Department from 1968 to 1975 and chairman of the American Astronomical Society Education Committee. At the time of his death, he was to have become editor of the Astronomical Journal effective January 1, 1984.

Asteroid 3449 Abell is named in his honour, as is The George Abell Observatory at the Open University in Milton Keynes, England.

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