An inauspicious start

In 1877, a royal decree established Kapteyn as professor of astronomy and theoretical mechanics at the University of Groningen, at the same time that his brother Willem obtained a mathematics professorship at the University of Utrecht. The University of Groningen, founded in 1614, had only 200 or 300 students, and some considered the town, in the far northeastern corner of the Netherlands, to be remote and provincial. However,

Kapteyn's professional success seemed assured. He moved to Groningen and then returned south for a visit to Utrecht, to ask Elise to marry him. A wedding date was set for the following year.

Kapteyn brought to his new post in Groningen high hopes of attacking and solving some of the fundamental problems confronting astronomers at the close of the nineteenth century. Upon joining the faculty, he was expected to present an inaugural address. Reflecting his interest in the scale of the universe and the distribution of stars, he chose to lecture on ''The Parallax of the Fixed Stars.'' No text of his lecture survives, but it is likely that he explained to his non-specialist audience the importance of parallax measurements, and he may have hinted at his own plans to study the structure of the known universe by accumulating more information on stellar distances. Almost 40 years after Bessel, Struve, and Henderson first made convincing measurements of stellar parallax, data on stellar distances were still scarce and difficult to obtain.

Kapteyn joined the faculty shortly after the formation of the astronomy department, and naturally expected to avail himself of a telescope, photographic equipment, and other instruments. The university as yet had nothing, but Kapteyn set to work gathering the necessary resources. He located a suitable site outside of town where an observatory could be erected, and requested funds for a 6-inch aperture heliometer, an instrument like Bessel's, to collect parallax data. He sent proposal after proposal to the government, which controlled university spending. However, astronomers at Leiden and Utrecht, fearing that funds for astronomical research would be spread too thin, opposed his plans.

Kapteyn continued to petition the Dutch government for funds for 12 years after he arrived on campus. While he waited and hoped for a positive response, he collaborated on mathematical problems with his brother Willem and spent vacations at the observatory in Leiden. Use of the equipment in Leiden allowed him to publish a few papers on techniques for precise parallax measurements and to measure the parallaxes of 15 stars over the course of four years, but he was clearly still hungry for scientific data. At one point he even requested that the Dutch government help him ask the French government for the locations of 200-year old trees around a meteorological station in Paris, so he could study the growth of trees as a function of rainfall. He was stuck, and as the years slipped by he became rather depressed about his situation.

Kapteyn and his wife kept busy raising children during these professionally unrewarding years of the 1880s. Their eldest daughter Jacoba Cornelia was born in 1880, a year after their marriage. Henrietta was born a year and a half later, and son Gerrit in 1883. Henrietta wrote that her parents took an unusually rational approach to child-rearing; ''[Tjogether they had made a thorough study of the principles of child-rearing,'' she noted.5 They went so far as to challenge what they believed were unsound practices of doctors and midwives, whose authority was usually unquestioned.

Kapteyn took a more active role in the family life than most fathers of his day, according to Henrietta. ''In contrast to the foolish etiquette of the time, mother was the first in her circle of friends who pushed her own baby carriage rather than have a nurse-maid do it. And if they went out together, the young professor used to push the baby carriage himself, despite the laughs of the street urchins, and the astonishment of his colleagues,'' she claimed.6

Henrietta's own favorite story about her father's philosophy centers on a luscious bit of fruit. ''There was once a large bunch of grapes on the table, which itself was very rare in such a simple family,'' she wrote. ''As a small child, I eyed them gleefully and sighed, 'Oh! If only I could eat that whole bunch alone, then I would be perfectly happy!''' Her father asked if she realized how unfair this would be — then relented and said, ''Well now, then you shall enjoy perfect happiness this once, child, which is so seldom.'' And he gave her the whole bunch.7

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