Sidney van den Bergh (1929- )

A world expert in galaxy classification and the measurement of cosmic distances, he made several estimates of the size and age of the Universe

Sidney van den Berg was born in 1929 in Wassenaar, Netherlands. He spent one year at the University of Leiden and then went to Princeton University in the United States on a scholarship. He received his bachelor’s degree from Princeton in 1950, and his master’s from Ohio State University in 1952. He finished his studies in 1956 with a doctoral degree from the University of Göttingen in Germany.

He was hired as a professor at Ohio State University the same year he graduated, and he stayed there until 1958 when he accepted a professorship at the David Dunlap Observatory of the University of Toronto in Ontario. He became involved in expanding the observatory’s facilities, perfecting computerized calculation techniques, and developing the field of polychrome photometry. For the latter, he collaborated with Robert D. McClure to design a photometric system that would go on to be used around the world for photometric studies.

Black and white photo of a man with glasses wearing a shirt, tie and sweater

Van den Bergh’s main specialty was the study of meteors, but his interests quickly diversified and by 1960 he had already published numerous articles on globular clusters, interstellar clouds, galaxies and supernovae. In 1962, he added the Moon to his list of studied celestial objects. Subsequent years, however, were primarily devoted to the study of variable stars, globular clusters, interstellar clouds, galaxies and supernovae.

His work on the classification and evolution of galaxies, as well as on the extragalactic distance scale, led him to make several estimates of the size and age of the Universe. He thus became a world expert in the field of matter.

 Van den Bergh began his interest in comets in 1973 and discovered a new comet in 1974 that bears his name. In 1986, he was able to obtain remarkable images of the jets emanating from Halley’s comet.

In 1977, he was named Director of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria, British Columbia, and he occupied the post starting in 1978. Four years later, he became President and Chairman of the Board of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Corporation. He retired in 1986, but retained a researcher position at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria.

Today, van den Bergh focuses his research on the classification and the evolution of galaxies using images taken with the Hubble Space Telescope. He retains an interest in a number of diverse subjects: among others, he published an article in 1992 that refuted the idea of an astronomical significance for the Nazca lines of Peru, and one in 1994 demonstrating that it is unlikely supernova explosions caused mass extinctions on Earth.

Luminous pink dots scattered in a yellow, purple, blue and green cloudy background with a very black sky as a backdrop

Van den Bergh has published more than 500 scientific articles. He received numerous awards for his work and was named an Officer of the Order of Canada. Asteroid 4230 bears his name in his honour.

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