Power couple: Aden and Marjorie Meinel's inspiring duet helped shape 20th Century astronomy

01 May 2024
By William G. Schulz
Aden and Marjorie Meinel on a trip to China in 1987. Photo credit: James B. Breckenridge

When one person in a marriage needs to stay mum about their top-secret scientific work for the government, dinner-table conversation might turn awkward at times. Imagine, though, the life of a couple in which each partner works hush-hush on a different branch of a huge and very classified project: They had better be satisfied with weather and sports.

Such was the case for US astronomy pioneers Aden and Marjorie Meinel who, as newlyweds in the early 1940s, worked on separate aspects of the sprawling Manhattan Project. It’s not clear, decades later, just how much either of them knew what the other was up to, day-to-day, during the years when the US military had its foot on the gas in a race to build the world’s first atom bomb.

The Meinels first met at a math club meeting at Pasadena Junior College, where they graduated in 1941, according to James B. Breckenridge and Alec M. Pridgeon, authors of With Stars in their Eyes: The Extraordinary Lives and Enduring Genius of Aden and Marjorie Meinel. They married three years later, under the hardship—as well as the opportunities for training, education, and jobs—that resulted from the US entry into World War II.

“It was a classic romance early on,” says SPIE Past President, Joe Houston, who was both a colleague and friend of the Meinels. “And during the war years it was rough. And then they started having a family [the Meinels brought up seven children] and they were very, very busy.”

Indeed, the WWII shadow of deprivation and long hours of hard work at the start of their lives together set the Meinel partnership on its seldom-equaled path of joint service to science and society that spanned the last half of the 20th Century, plus.  They were a science power couple, before that was a thing, and Marjorie was blazing another trail as a woman scientist through the boys’ club of physics and astronomy.

Today, the Meinels would be categorized as thought leaders in astronomy, including the history of astronomical instruments, state-of-the-art instrumentation, and future directions of the field. Many of their joint papers and conference presentations, including those in the SPIE Digital Library, serve as historical guides and showcase their prescience about what was to come, especially the advent of large-mirror, as well as multiple- and segmented- mirror, instruments. In other work, they weighed the pros and cons of various telescope mounts, and authored papers on adaptive optics, including wavefront control for large optics, optics systems for space telescopes, laser guide stars for focusing telescopes, and more.

“We owe them a huge debt,” says Houston.

Marjorie Steele Pettit was born in Pasadena, California, in 1922. Her father, Edison, was an astronomer at nearby Mt. Wilson Observatory, and her mother, Hannah, held a doctoral degree in astronomy. Nonetheless, on account of being a woman, she was turned down for a job at the observatory by then- director, Edwin Hale. Hale said she could be a “computer,” however, on call to work out calculations for the observatory’s male astronomers.

Years later, Marjorie was allowed to assist her father at Mt. Wilson but the ban on female astronomers lasted for decades. “Women in particular had to prove that they were capable of being more than human computers for their male counterparts, which was how Marjorie’s mother Hannah was [also] treated at Yerkes Observatory, even with her PhD in astronomy from the University of Chicago,” write Breckenridge and Pridgeon.

That the Pettit household was steeped in astronomy would be an understatement. The Pettit home included an Alvan-Clark 6-inch refractor on the roof. Marjorie’s sister Helen would go on to become an astronomer, too.

Aden’s journey from working-class childhood (his father was a house painter) in Pasadena, California, to becoming the first director of Kitt Peak National Observatory, founding director of the University of Arizona’s Wyant Optical Sciences Center (OSC), and optics consultant for the US federal government for both classified and civilian projects, exemplify the flowering of US science in the years following WWII. His was the first generation to sidestep economic barriers to higher education—and then also be able to earn a living in science—thanks to the “Endless Frontier” (plus money) set forth by US policymakers.

The Meinels receive their SPIE Gold Medals at the SPIE Annual Meeting in 1997.

An interesting detour in the Meinels’ career was their decision in 1970 to take a sabbatical (Aden was by then director of OSC) to study solar energy. They had heard discussions, especially at a 1955 World Solar Symposium in Phoenix, that solar would soon power millions of homes, which, of course, turned out not to be the case, writes Donald E. Osborn, a contributor to With Stars in Their Eyes. In fact, even the esteemed National Academy of Sciences was dismissing solar energy as “holding little promise for meeting future energy needs of the United States.”

After reviewing the issue, the Meinels concluded that solar energy development had stalled because all applications were aimed at small uses in developing countries. In a similar vein, technologists weren’t being asked to develop solar to generate gigawatts of power, rather mere kilowatts, or thousands of BTUs.

So, the Meinels “stepped into the breach,” writes Osborn. They developed a detailed concept of a National Solar Power Facility based on high temperature, large-scale solar thermal power plants using advanced thin-film selective optical coatings to boost power efficiency and cost effectiveness. They published a popular article describing the concept, generating massive public support for a demonstration project. But then politics and competition with smaller-scale solar energy demonstration projects delayed and finally killed the project.

Even though they never built a demonstration plant, Houston says it was “inspirational” to see [the Meinels] tackle such an important issue.”

Asked why the Meinels (Marjorie died in 2008 and Aden passed on in 2011) never tried to capture intellectual property rights and thus profit from their many optics innovations, Houston says the idea would have been anathema to the couple. “Everything they did, it was for the sciences. It was for optics.”

William G. Schulz is the Managing Editor of Photonics Focus.


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