Ernst Julius Öpik – the man (1)
Archived Articles 11 Jan 2008 Eva VabasaluEWR
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Calculations determine that if an asteroid raced through the earth’s atmosphere at cosmic velocity, it would be a speed so intense that it would compress the air under it to an intensity ten times the surface of the sun’s temperature. This magnitude of speed and force equally applies to the breath of intelligence exhibited by Dr. Ernst Julius Öpik who in 1922 began studying galactic boulders cruising the Milky Way in the constellation of Sagittarius between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter and their earth-crossings.

Ernst Öpik was born October 23, 1893 in Kunda, Estonia, a northern town on the shores of north-eastern Virumaa into a large brainy family. His father, Karl Henirich, was an orphan raised on a ship of the Russian Imperial Navy, and in later life was a harbour supervisor of the Kunda port. Karl was strict and punitive with his six sons and daughter. His children were nature enthusiasts introduced to fossil hunting by the oldest sibling. Each of the children seemed to be uniquely gifted with a voracious intellectual appetite and a bent for the arts.

Ernst was a polished pianist graced with perfect pitch who seriously considered music as a career. He graduated from Moscow Imperial University in 1916. During the Russian revolution Ernst Öpik joined the White Army to fight the Bolsheviks. After a quick romance he married Vera Oreshkina, a beautiful Russian girl from Siberia who had relocated to Moscow. Their first daughter, Maija, was born in 1922.

After a stint as Director of the Astronomy Dept. at the new University of Turkestan he returned to Estonia and lectured in astronomy at Tartu University. He met Alide Piiri, a research assistant, with whom he began a love affair and for a few years he kept two wives, ran two households and fathered five more children. Öpik secured a post at Harvard, 1930-34, as Visiting Lecturer, where he impressed his colleagues with his acumen. In September 1944 when the Russian armies closed in on Estonia, he arranged for Alide and their three children to be taken to Tallinn. He helped his two eldest children by his first wife escape to America. The youngest daughter, Elina, decided to stay behind with her mother Vera – with the result being that she did not see her father and sisters again for 34 years.

During his time in a refugee camp in Germany Öpik continued his work, and as paper was precious, he wrote on every square inch of every sheet in a small and meticulous hand. After the war Öpik became a director at Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland. As editor of The Irish Astronomical Journal he emended papers prepared by young astronomers, often doubling their reference footnotes. He was known to be very frank and instantly able to size up a person’s character.

His younger associates thought it odd that he was not intimidated by "the troubles" as they were called in Northern Ireland, and when one person complained in a resume about the difficulties of living in the area, Öpik insisted that he delete it. They couldn’t understand how he could be so unaffected, seemingly oblivious, by the maelstrom.

Some noted scientific discoveries were: analysing density of white dwarf 40 Eri B, in 1915; calculating the distance of (Andromeda Nebula) in 1922; discovering a spherical cloud of comets roughly a light year away from the sun, (1932), known as the Oort Cloud; the first compositional models of dwarf stars (i.e. the Sun) showing how they emerged into giants (1938); a new hypothesis on Ice Ages (1952). He died in Ireland on September 10, 1985. For his outstanding contributions, Minor Planet 2099 Öpik, an asteroid, was named for him on the occasion of his eighty-fifth birthday.
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