Written by Alex Preston
Since the founding of Armagh Observatory in 1790, many notable figures have paved the way for the study of star astrophysics, the sun, solar system astronomy and Earth’s climate. Of all these figures, perhaps the most extraordinary person is Ernst Julius Öpik. Öpik was a brilliant Estonian astronomer and astrophysicist who moved to Northern Ireland in 1948. His extensive interests include the structure of stars, the age and evolution of the Universe, the physical theory of meteors, statistical analysis of the Earth crossing of small bodies, mechanics of celestial collisions, as well as the original cause of the ice ages.
Öpik was born in Kunda, Lääne-Viru, Governorate of Estonia, then part of the Russian Empire on October 22, 1893. He went to Moscow University to specialize in the study of smaller bodies such as asteroids, comets and meteors . . He completed his PhD at the University of Tartu.
Unlike communism, he had volunteered for the White Army during the Russian Civil War, and in 1921 returned to an independent Estonia where he was appointed astronomer and associate professor at Tartu University (1921-1944). He started working at the observatory near the university city of Tartu, where he would build his reputation as one of the world’s best astronomers.
As an astronomer, his reputation had reached such a dizzying height that in 1930, when he was only 37, he became a visiting professor at Harvard University. Friends said that when he lived with his wife Alide, the pre-war years were the happiest of his life. Such carefree times did not last. The Red Army conquered Estonia in 1940 and a year later by the Nazis. Ernst refused to let the petty war cases get in the way of his research.
Nevertheless, in 1944, when the Red Army invaded again, he decided to flee. “I would go to the sea and drown myself instead of living among the Russians,” he said. As the Red Army approached, he ordered Alide and their three children to take a van to Tallinn while they put the family’s belongings on a horse cart. Tallinn was covered in thick clouds of smoke – from locals burning their papers before the Soviets arrived, destroying evidence of collusion with the Germans. The family sailed to Germany and lived in camps as a refugee for years.
Ernst became rector of a Baltic University for Displaced Persons and even published articles on astronomy from his refugee camp in Germany. When the Baltic University was threatened with closure, Eric M. Lindsay, director of the Armagh Observatory, received money from the Northern Ireland government to establish a special post for him as a research associate in Armagh. Öpik was one of Lindsay’s PhD examiners at Harvard. He accepted the position and moved to Armagh in 1948, aged 54, with his wife, her sister and three children. They lived at 30 College Hill, Armagh. Despite being offered various positions elsewhere, he was loyal to the Observatory and remained on the staff for the next thirty-three years. However, he remained affiliated with the US as a visiting professor at the University of Maryland, where he attended for several months every year. At the age of 80, he became Acting Director (1974-6) of the Armagh Observatory after Lindsay’s sudden death.
To be continued