Heber Doust Curtis

On the way to the debate in Washington, DC, Shapley and Curtis discovered they were riding the same Southern Pacific train. They had met and corresponded before; Shapley had visited Curtis at Lick Observatory, and the two may have crossed paths at astronomical congresses. The long train ride gave them the opportunity to get to know each other better, but they refrained from divulging their plans for the lectures in Washington. Shapley wrote in his memoir, ''When the train broke down in Alabama, we walked back and forth and talked about flowers and classical subjects. It was quite pleasant. But we deliberately kept away from the controversial subject — the Great Debate.''43

Curtis, 13 years older than Shapley, had a talent both for mathematics and languages, and, as Shapley certainly learned on the train, he had studied classics at the University of Michigan. After graduating he took a job teaching Latin and Greek at a small college in Napa, California. He became interested in astronomy, however, and resumed his schooling in 1900, when he and his wife and two children moved across the country so that he could pursue graduate studies in astronomy at the University of Virginia.

After earning his PhD, Curtis accepted a staff position at Lick Observatory near San Jose, California and began assisting director W W Campbell in spectroscopic studies of stars. In 1905, Campbell sent him to Santiago, Chile, to man the observatory's southern hemisphere station. In 1909, Campbell called him back again, this time to continue an observing program on the nebulae that former director James Keeler had begun some years before. This was the project that made Curtis an acknowledged expert on both spiral and planetary nebulae.

The first world war—which broke out while Curtis was on a solar eclipse expedition in Russia — slowed Curtis's progress, but did not curtail his research on the nebulae. He taught navigation for a while, then moved to Washington, DC, to develop cameras for the Bureau of Standards.

In Washington, DC, Curtis had the opportunity to discuss his astronomical work with a wide audience. By 1917, he had become convinced that the spiral nebulae, which he estimated numbered more than 700 000, were island universes. He presented his views in March 1919 at a joint meeting of the Washington Academy of Sciences and the Philosophical Society of Washington. He may have discussed them, too, at a dinner with Hale within a week of his lectures. Shortly thereafter he returned to Lick Observatory. When he met Shapley on the train to Washington, he was on the verge of accepting the directorship of the University of Pittsburgh's Allegheny Observatory.

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