The Meinels make their marks in astronomy

Aden and Marjorie Meinel form a team that has made a permanent and extraordinary mark in all aspects of astronomy. From the June 2002 issue of oemagazine.
01 June 2002
by Ginger Oppenheimer

SPIE Fellows Aden and Marjorie MeinelAden and Marjorie Meinel not only lived during the "Golden Age of Science" but helped define it-from Schmidt spectrographs to 84-inch mirrors, from instrument design to observatory design, from solar optics to space optics. Together, while raising a family of seven, they roared through the field of astronomy from the late 1930s to the present, making their mark from Yerkes Observatory to Kitt Peak and everywhere in between-and to the skies above.

To recognize the Meinels in the 80th year of their lives and in honor of a lifetime achievement in the optical sciences, a one-day Meinel Symposium was held at the University of Arizona's Optical Sciences Center (OSC -- now the College of Optical Sciences) in Tucson in 2002. Where to locate the symposium was not a casual decision; Aden was the founder of the OSC in 1964, and the building was renamed for the Meinels in 1993. The culminating event of the symposium was a groundbreaking ceremony for the new wing of the building.

The Meinels' meteoric rise in the world of astronomy didn't begin with the OSC -- it was just a stopping point along the way.

The Beginning

Both natives of Pasadena, CA, Aden Meinel met Marjorie Pettit at Pasadena Junior College in an 11th grade special high-school class for gifted students. Marjorie, the daughter of Edison Pettit, one of the founding astronomers at the Mt. Wilson Observatory, headed to her BA in astronomy at Pomona College and an MA in astronomy from Claremont College in 1944. Aden went about it in a more roundabout fashion. By serendipitous means, while still a junior-college student he became a volunteer lab assistant in the physics lab at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech). He also had an opportunity to be an apprentice optician in the Mt. Wilson optical shop.

Aden's keen interest and quick learning catapulted him through school requirements, and he was accepted to CalTech, matriculating as a sophomore. Although he had a jump start, he didn't graduate from CalTech; during his senior year, Pearl Harbor was bombed, changing the course of his and Marjorie's lives and his education.

While Marjorie was hired as an editor on the Navy Rocket Project at CalTech, Aden's life was more peripatetic. From rocket expert in the California desert testing grounds to information gathering with Patton in Germany, Aden's growing strengths in rocket engineering kept him in demand. In 1944 Aden and Marjorie married, although Aden continued his travels in Europe, courtesy of the U.S. government. When the war was over and Aden returned to California, he was accepted to the University of California at Berkeley but had to begin as an undergraduate. Despite the setbacks, his real-world learning and quest for knowledge gave him the boost to finish his BA in 1947 and, a mere two years later, his PhD in 1949.

The Journey Continues

Aden's PhD dissertation was the design and construction of the world's first solid Schmidt spectrograph; using it he discovered strong red-IR emission lines in the night airglow from vibrational-rotation bands of the OH hydroxyl radical. He was 25 years old.

Aden soon built a camera with better definition and with it and a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Meinels set off across the country to Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, where auroras were more common. It was here he discovered the O2(b-X,0-1) emission band in night airglow, now known as the Meinel bands. Aden continued his explorations at Yerkes while an associate professor at the University of Chicago. He then served as associate director for both the Yerkes and McDonald Observatories until 1956.

In the meantime, Marjorie, who had put her own professional career on hold to raise a family that would eventually include seven children, was a partner in Aden's profession. With her astronomy knowledge, she acted as editor, muse, and sounding board to Aden, a pattern that continued even into her renewed professional work that began in the mid-1970s.

In 1952, Aden was awarded the OSA's Adolph Lomb Medal for noteworthy contributions to optics before the age of 30. It was to be the first of many honors and awards. He was also awarded the OSA's Frederick Ives Medal in 1980 for overall distinction in optics, the highest award of that society; he and Edwin Land (the founder of Polaroid) are the only recipients of both. The Meinels also received, among other awards, SPIE's Gold Medal Award in 1997, the Kingslake medal in 1994 and 2001, and the Goddard Award in 1984, the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal in 1993, and the George van Biesbroeck Award for Services in Astronomy in 1990. But these were years in the future.

Higher Sites

In 1957, Aden was tapped by the NSF to do a site survey for a new national observatory. The end result was the Kitt Peak Observatory in the desert of Arizona, southwest of Tucson. The first telescope was intended to be 80 inches, but to ensure there was excess glass for the optician, Aden instructed the form to be made at 84 inches. The work was so excellent that the 80-inch telescope became the 84-inch Kitt Peak telescope. Aden was a supporter of the idea of astronomy for all. Until the establishment of the national observatories, private ownership by universities and local governments prevailed. With the Kitt Peak observatory, astronomy was open to all. Aden contributed to the programmatic, scientific, and engineering of Kitt Peak, with an extraordinary grasp of the total needs of the astronomical community.

Aden remained the director until 1961 when he literally walked across the street to assume the directorship of the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory. He was also a professor in the department of astronomy during this time. In 1966, with the aid of an NSF Science Development Grant, Aden was instrumental in establishing the OSC at the University of Arizona. Here, in addition to being the director until 1973, he taught instrumentation for many years and is now professor emeritus.

During his tenure at the OSC, the United States experienced an energy crunch. It motivated the Meinels to delve into solar optics and energy, which resulted in one of several published books they authored together.

Aden's life included some unexpected directions; during most of his career he made many contributions to advanced sensor systems for ground and space surveillance for national defense through contracts with the U.S. Air Force.

Out to Space

Aden and Marjorie Meinel, now recognized as a world-class team of astronomers, were ready for new challenges. Jim Breckinridge at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in the 1980s (and now at NSF) wanted to utilize their expertise. With the Meinels' developing interests in space optics, JPL was a logical move for them; Breckinridge hired them both as Distinguished Visiting Scientists. It was here they helped develop the next-generation space-telescope concepts. Aden was brilliant at architect and design of full systems, thus he was occupied with design, assembly, adaptive optics, interferometry, and materials engineering and development for deployment of space telescopes.

The Meinels retired from JPL in 1993. Marjorie remained on call until 2000, while Aden maintains his ties.

The Meinels rose in the world of astronomy with the help and collaboration of many of the names of the glowing days of the science in the mid-20th century: Pettit, Chandrasekhar, Kuiper. Aden, known for his enthusiasm and energy, and Marjorie, known for her steady strength, form a team that has made a permanent and extraordinary mark in all aspects of astronomy. This article hardly touches the genius and scope of that mark.

Thanks to Jim Breckinridge for his contributions to this article. The Meinel Symposium was sponsored by the OSC with SPIE acting as a cooperating organization.

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