Russell, Henry Norris

Russell, Henry Norris (1877-1957), for many years the leading theoretical astronomer in America, was graduated from Princeton in 1897 at the age of nineteen insigni cum laude (with extraordinary honor( -- a designation by the Faculty never used before or since. His father was a Presbyterian minister; his mother and maternal grandmother had both won prizes in mathematics. He recalled his parents' showing him the transit of Venus in 1882 when he was five years old. His favorite study in college was mathematics (his favorite sport, mountain-climbing); an interest in astronomy was stimulated by Professor Charles A. Young, with whom he continued to study after graduation, earning his Ph.D. summa cum laude in 1900. Following study as an advanced research student at Cambridge University, England, he was appointed instructor in astronomy by Woodrow Wilson in 1905, became a full professor in 1911, and director of the Observatory in 1912. He took an active part in the affairs of the Class of 1897 and attended reunions frequently. His classmates were very proud of him; at their thirtieth reunion in 1927, they honored him and their old astronomy teacher by endowing the Charles A. Young Research Professorship of Astronomy with Russell as the first incumbent.

Russell pioneered in the use of atomic physics for the analysis of the stars and thus played a principal part in laying the foundations of present-day astrophysics. He analyzed the physical conditions and chemical compositions of stellar atmospheres and evaluated the relative abundance of the elements. His assertion of the overwhelming abundance of hydrogen was accepted, after prolonged controversy, as one of the basic facts of cosmology.

His name is perpetuated by the Hertzsprung-Russell color magnitude diagram (stellar evolution), the ``Russell mixture'' (composition of solar and stellar atmospheres), Russell-Saunders coupling (spectrum analysis), and the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship of the American Astronomical Society, endowed at his retirement by gifts from fellow astronomers and Princeton classmates.

Russell's position as America's leading astronomer was recognized by his presidency of the American Astronomical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Philosophical Society. He was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society of England, two medals of the French Academy, five other medals of American scientific societies, and numerous honorary degrees. Mexico conferred on him its Order of the Aztec Eagle, and issued a postage stamp in his honor -- done in orange and black.

Russell attracted to Princeton an outstanding group of graduate students who went on to occupy positions of leadership in observatories throughout the country. Notable among his students were Harlow Shapley, Ph.D. 1913, who became director of the Harvard Observatory in 1921; Donald H. Menzel, Ph.D. 1924, who succeeded Shapley at Harvard in 1952; and Lyman Spitzer, Jr., Ph.D. 1938, who succeeded Russell as director of the Princeton Observatory in 1947.

Harlow Shapley said that it was generally agreed that the word ``genius'' more rightly applied to Russell than to any other American astronomer of his or earlier times. F.J.M. Stratton, leading British astrophysicist, thought Russell ``the most eminent and versatile theoretical astrophysicist in the United States if not in the world,'' and described him as ``a man of overflowing energy, never sparing himself in his own work or in assisting in the researches of others.''

Among Russell's 241 published papers were articles written jointly with Princeton colleagues in both astronomy and physics and a joint paper with Robert K. Root, Professor of English, ``A Planetary Date for Chaucer's Troilus''; they also included a paper, ``On the Navigation of Airplanes,'' for which Russell made observations in airplanes flying at 105 miles per hour, at heights up to 16,000 feet, as a consultant to the federal government in World War I.

Lyman Spitzer, Jr. has given us this vivid picture of Russell:

``Those who knew him in his later years remember him for his unbounded energy and his enthusiasm for ideas. It is characteristic of the man that he would frequently be so carried away in his graduate lectures that he would talk enthusiastically for an additional hour or two, carrying his fascinated audience into exciting new realms of research. He brought this same keenness and enthusiasm to all the many experiences in his full and active life -- to his extensive travels, his wide reading of both prose and poetry, and his happy hours with his grandchildren. He would keep small children engrossed for hours with the paper boats, balls, birds, and animals that he constructed with facility, his long, dextrous fingers folding and creasing the paper with unerring speed. His knowledge was encyclopedic; it included facts and theories not only in all branches of science but also in such varied subjects as the Bible and the wild flowers of New Jersey.''

Russell spoke frequently on the socalled ``conflict'' between science and religion, seeking to assure those who feared science as ``a dangerous foe'' to religion that their feeling was ``altogether ill-advised.'' In his 1925 Terry Lectures at Yale, he fully accepted the mechanistic theory of nature, ``not as a demonstrated natural law, but as a working hypothesis'' and held that this hypothesis ``far from being hostile to religion . . . is capable of rendering religion important services.'' He concluded his Terry Lectures with this statement of his personal belief:

``The need for some venture of faith still remains; one must stake one's life upon something. For myself, if I am to stake all I have and hope to be upon anything, I will venture it upon the abounding fullness of God -- upon the assurance that, as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are His ways higher than our ways, and His thoughts than our thoughts. Just what future the Designer of the universe has provided for the souls of men I do not know, I cannot prove. But I find that the whole order of Nature confirms my confidence that, if it is not like our noblest hopes and dreams, it will transcend them.''

``And, when immortality becomes for us no longer a matter of academic discussion, but the most vital of all questions; . . . we shall find our comfort where so many before us have found it, in the ancient words, `In manus tuas, Domine.'


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

Go to Search A Princeton Companion