October 16, 1997
University Gazette


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Shapiro Named First Timken University Professor

The first telescope Irwin Shapiro ever used was the one he built himself, a six-inch diameter reflector that won first prize in his high school science contest.

"I ground the mirror myself," Shapiro said, "and because it was during World War II, I couldn't get a metal tube, so I made a 12-sided wooden figure, planing all the sides so they fitted together properly."

Shapiro, a professor of astronomy and of physics, now uses more sophisticated techniques for studying the heavens as director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), a collaboration of the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), and arguably the largest astronomical research center in the world.

Recognizing Shapiro's distinguished career, the University's Governing Boards recently approved his appointment to the new Timken University Chair, established by the Timken family and the Timken Foundation of Canton, Ohio. The chair elevates the H.H. Timken Professorship of Science, created by the family in 1986 in honor of the father and the grandfather of the late W. Robert Timken '32, who died in 1995. The elder Timkens pioneered the invention of the tapered roller bearing -- a key product in the automobile industry. Today, the Ohio-based company is the world's largest manufacturer of tapered roller bearings, and leading international manufacturer of alloy steels.

After Bob Timken graduated from Harvard, he served the Timken Co. successively in various posts, becoming president in 1960 and chairman of the board in 1968. He retired in 1975, and in 1977 the Business School honored him with its annual Distinguished Service Award.

The Timken family and foundation have a long association with the University. They endowed the Timken Professorship of Business Administration in 1973. Establishing a Timken University Chair was part of the family's desire to recognize "a person with a broad and distinguished background, whose talents and innovative work expand the frontiers of knowledge."

"My father was very committed to the idea of promoting excellence through the application of education and experience to achieve breakthroughs in both the arts and sciences in order to improve our national well-being," said Ward Timken, PMD (Program in Management Development) '78. "Our family continues to feel that Harvard University represents a key potential in assuring not only our country's success but in setting new standards of excellence worldwide. We commend Harvard on its selection of Professor Shapiro."

"I am very honored to be named the first Timken University Professor," Shapiro said.

Career focuses on galaxies

A native of New York City, Shapiro earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Cornell, and master's and doctoral degrees in physics from Harvard. He began his career at M.I.T.'s Lincoln Laboratory in 1954 and became a professor of geophysics and physics at M.I.T. in 1967.

In 1982, he moved to the other end of Cambridge to become the Paine Professor of Practical Astronomy and professor of physics, a senior scientist of the SAO, and the director of the CfA.

"Irwin Shapiro is an imaginative and broad-ranging astrophysicist who has greatly advanced our knowledge of the universe while also helping both teachers and students to reach a deeper understanding of the nature of scientific thought," said President Neil L. Rudenstine. "We are very grateful to the Timken family for their generous support of the sciences at Harvard. Professor Shapiro will serve with distinction as the first holder

of the new Timken chair, at a time when the pace of discovery -- and of the reformulation of theory -- in astrophysics is increasing almost daily."

Much of Shapiro's research involves using gravitational lenses to determine the size and age of the universe.

In a gravitational lens, an extremely massive object, such as a giant galaxy or cluster of galaxies, forms multiple images of an even more distant object, such as a bright quasar. Because of these multiple images, an observer on Earth can measure the differences in travel times along different paths the light travels in forming these multiple images, and then use simple geometry -- and other information -- to infer the distance to the quasars and hence the size scale and age of the universe.

There are great benefits to this approach, says Shapiro, because it directly probes to very great distances and avoids the standard "cosmic distance scale ladder," in which measurements are made of the distances to separate and quite disparate objects at ever-increasing distances from Earth.

"The mass of the lens affects the distance estimate, and I have been concentrating on measuring that mass," Shapiro explained.

Another aspect of Shapiro's research focuses on tests of Einstein's general theory of relativity. Shapiro remembers hearing the word "Einstein" as a young child, but not knowing it referred to a person. "I thought 'Einstein' simply meant 'genius,' " he said.

"Through the years I've initiated and carried out several tests of his theory of relativity, and now I'm involved in Stanford University's test, to check the prediction that the direction of a gyroscope will change when it's freely falling about a rotating mass, in this case, the Earth."

Shapiro is also one of the pioneers of very-long-baseline interferometry, a radio technique in which a number of relatively small but widely separated telescopes are used to simulate a single giant antenna, yielding very detailed images of astronomical objects and extraordinarily accurate determinations of the objects' positions as well as the positions of the antennae on Earth. Shapiro was the first to suggest that, with this technique, one could actually measure the drifting of the continents over Earth's "surface."

Collaborating with a team of 13 other astronomers, Shapiro is also using a global network of radio telescopes to produce a "movie" of the expanding cloud of debris streaming outward from a supernova, or exploded star.

But his interests in science extend beyond his own research and teaching to improving secondary school science education. When his children were in high school, Shapiro looked at their science texts and was appalled. The thick texts were chock full of concepts beyond the understanding of most high school students, and survival meant memorization and regurgitation, he explained. Since then, he has worked on curriculum development, established the Science Education Department at the CfA, and now teaches a course called The Nature of Science at the Graduate School of Education for prospective middle and high school science teachers.

As director of the CfA, Shapiro aids the work of more than 300 Harvard and Smithsonian doctoral-level researchers and educational specialists, and a supporting cast of some 500 technical and administrative staff.

Shapiro is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (since 1969) and the National Academy of Sciences (1974). He was awarded, among other honors, the Benjamin Apthorp Gould Prize of the National Academy, the Michelson Medal of the Franklin Institute, the Dannie Heineman Prize and the Brouwer medal of the American Astronomical Society, and the Charles A. Whitten and William Bowie medals of the American Geophysical Union, the last being the highest honor bestowed by the Union.


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College