History of the McCormick Observatory

Alexander Vyssotsky




Alexander Vyssotsky
The list of accomplishments in observational astronomy attributed to Alexander N. Vyssotsky is lengthy and impressive. In his 35 years of astronomical work at the University of Virginia he published countless works, with his best known probably being a catalog with five lists of stars entitled Dwarf M Stars Found Spectrophotometrically. The work for this book was done with a 10-inch prismatic camera to provide spectroscopic parallaxes comparing giant M and dwarf M stars. He helped to establish the time for one rotation of the Galaxy as 220 million years. He worked on Galactic kinematics and dynamics, concentrating on the local Milky Way. He did extensive proper motion work and spent eight years photographing the whole northern sky. Vyssotsky's story is much more impressive than just this list of accomplishments.

Vyssotsky was born May 23, 1888 in Moscow, Russia. He received his master's degree at the University of Moscow. He served in the Czar's army in World War I and became a lieutenant. He used his knowledge of French, English and German as a wireless operator to intercept messages of other armies. After the Russian Revolution, he fought with anticommunist forces in southern Russia. From there he moved to Constantinople and then to Bizarte, Tunisia where he taught science to Russian refugees.

A note in a German astronomical journal helped lead Vyssotsky to a position at the University of Virginia in 1923. He arrived in September to begin helping with the Boss star project. He also assisted Olivier in measuring double stars on photographic plates. Over the next five to ten years, the proper motion and double star photography monopolized Vyssotsky's time. It required eight years for Vyssotsky and Peter van de Kamp to complete the proper motion survey.

In 1929, he married fellow astronomer Emma T. R. Williams, who was from Philadelphia and of a Quaker descent. She worked with her husband as an astronomer at the McCormick Observatory until her retirement. They had one son, Victor who went on to work as a mathematician at Bell Labs.

In 1928, Vyssotsky was promoted from instructor to assistant professor. He was promoted again, this time to associate professor, in 1937. In the mid-1930s, Vyssotsky began to record spectra of stars as faint as 12th magnitude using the 10-inch Cooke camera and objective prism, also referred to as the astrograph. The astrograph was a gift from Mount Wilson Observatory, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and the Carnegie Corporation. The project took twenty years to finish and required Vyssotsky to be the primary user of the 10-inch astrograph. The resulting catalog has been widely used ever since.

Vyssotsky also contributed astronomical work outside his spectral survey. In October 1939, he unintentionally obtained the first spectrum of a meteor, using the astrograph. His work on M-type stars began in the early 1940's when he used the Cooke 10-inch and observed emission lines in the spectrum of a dwarf M-type star, which provoked further investigation. Starting in the early 1950's, Vyssotsky worked in cooperation with the Harvard College Observatory to abstract papers from Russian astronomical journals. He also composed Russian abstracts for papers presented at American and International conferences.

Throughout his tenure at UVa., Vyssotsky gave guests lectures around the country and taught classes for undergraduate and graduate students. He attended several meetings of the International Astronomical Union around the world. He participated in American Association for the Advancement of Science meetings. In the mid-1950's he presented a paper at a conference on the Cosmic Distance Scale. He also went to the 1957 conference on Galactic system structure in Stockholm, Sweden as one of only ten Americans in attendance.

Vyssotsky

Vyssotsky was also well respected for his participation in the University of Virginia community. He played violin in fellow astronomer Piet van de Kamp's Observatory Mountain Orchestra and sat first chair. He collected the extensive collection of Leander McCormick Observatory Papers from 1920 to 1945 and contributed them to the Special Collections of Alderman Library at UVa. In December 1953, he was honored by election to the Raven Society, a select society at the University of Virginia.

Vyssotsky retired on June 30, 1958 after 35 years on UVa.'s faculty. The vacancy produced by his retirement was not filled immediately, putting an end to Vyssotsky's lengthy proper motion and astrometry programs. Vyssotsky died on December 31, 1973 in Winter Park, Florida at the age of 85. He was survived by his wife, Emma, and their son Victor.