Urey, Harold

Archive of correspondence with astronomer Arthur Beer

  • An archive of correspondence between astronomer Arthur Beer and Nobel Prize winning chemist Harold Urey regarding the latter’s contribution to Vistas in Astronomy.

    Beer (1900-1980) was born in Richenberg, Bohemia (later Czechoslovakia), and educated in Austria and Germany. He worked as an astronomer at Breslau University, where he studied binary stars, and at the German Maritime Observatory. He also wrote newspaper columns and was responsible for developing one of the first scientific radio programmes, Aus Natur und Technik. Beer escaped from Germany in 1934, assisted by Einstein, who wrote him a public letter of recommendation, and spent the rest of his life in the UK. He worked at the Cambridge Solar Physics Observatory and at the Kew Observatory, and became a member of the Royal Astronomical Society. Beer’s most significant contribution to science was as the founding editor of Vistas in Astronomy, a “voluminous and thorough survey of present-day astronomy” in two volumes, conceived as a Festschrift celebrating the 70th birthday of astrophysicist Frederick J. M. Stratton, under whom he had served in Cambridge. The resulting volumes were so impressive that it was continued first as an annual book and then a quarterly journal.

    American chemist Harold Urey (1893-1981) did key work on atomic and molecular structures, particularly hydrogen isotopes. This led him to the discovery of deuterium, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1934. During the Second World War he led the Manhattan Project’s branch at Columbia University, where he applied his knowledge of isotope separation techniques to the problem of isolating of pure uranium 235 on an industrial scale. After the war he worked at the Institute for Nuclear Studies at the University of Chicago. In 1958 Urey moved to the University of California, San Diego, where he did groundbreaking work on the origins of life on Earth, conducting a laboratory simulation of the conditions on the early Earth and proving that they were ideal for the production of cellular building blocks such as amino acids.

    The correspondence present here consists of five letters from Urey, mainly on practical issues connected with his contribution to Beer’s book. In the first, on September 10th, 1952, he replies to Beer’s request for submissions, apologising for taking so long to reply as “I have not been able to think of a subkect to write about. I am leaving for Europe on the 14th of September and hope to visit Cambridge about October 15th. If it isn’t too late by that time perhaps we can discuss the question then. In the meantime, I will turn this over in my mind and try to think of something that I might contribute to the book.” On January 8th the following year he writes, “At last the paper for the Stratton volume!... I wish it were a better paper. If you do not wish to publish it I shall not be offended at all. There are quite a few notes and I believe references and notes are more easily read if placed at the bottom of the page. But perhaps your rules are all made long ago.” Later that month Urey sends short note to confirm receipt of the document, and in July he asks that the proofs be mailed to him in Stockholm. The final letter, dated by Beer in pencil as postmarked July 31st, 1953, discusses the terms he has chosen for the index (”I have underlined [in the returned proof, not present here] expressions indicating topics for the index... on the margins I have written additional suggestions” and relates that the illustrations had not arrived yet when he left for the states, but that “I believe the figures can be assumed to be all right”.

  • Chicago, 1952-53. Including 3 typed letters signed (one with the signature removed for reproduction in Vistas in Astronomy) and 2 autograph letters signed by Urey. Housed in Beer’s tan paper folder with “Urey” in ink on the cover. Just a little creasing to some pieces. Excellent condition.

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