HALTON C. ARP, ASTRONOMER, DIES AT 86; SOUGHT TO CHALLENGE BIG BANG THEORY
The New York Times
January 8, 2014 Wednesday
By DENNIS OVERBYE; Reprinted from Tuesday’s early editions.
Halton C. Arp, a provocative son of American astronomy whose dogged
insistence that astronomers had misread the distances to quasars cast
doubt on the Big Bang theory of the universe and led to his exile from
his peers and the telescopes he loved, died on Dec. 28 in Munich. He
The cause was pneumonia, said his daughter Kristana Arp, who said he
also had Parkinson’s disease.
As a staff astronomer for 29 years at Hale Observatories, which
included the Mount Wilson and Palomar Mountain observatories in
Southern California, Dr. Arp was part of their most romantic era,
when astronomers were peeling back the sky and making discovery after
discovery that laid the foundation for the modern understanding of
the expansion of the universe.
But Dr. Arp, an artist’s son with a swashbuckling air, was no friend
of orthodoxy. A skilled observer with regular access to a 200-inch
telescope on Palomar Mountain, he sought out unusual galaxies and
collected them in “The Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies” (1966), showing
them interacting and merging with loops, swirls and streamers that
revealed the diversity and beauty of nature.
But these galaxies also revealed something puzzling and controversial.
In the expanding universe, as discovered by Edwin Hubble in 1929,
everything is moving away from us. The farther away it is, the faster
it is going, as revealed by its redshift, a stretching of light waves
— like the changing tone of an ambulance siren as it goes past —
known as a Doppler shift.
Dr. Arp found that galaxies with radically different redshifts, and
thus at vastly different distances from us, often appeared connected
by filaments and bridges of gas. This suggested, he said, that redshift
was not always an indication of distance but could be caused by other,
The biggest redshifts belonged to quasars — brilliant, pointlike
objects that are presumably at the edge of the universe. Dr. Arp
found, however, that they were often suspiciously close in the sky to
relatively nearby spiral galaxies. This suggested to him that quasars
were not so far away after all, and that they might have shot out of
the nearby galaxies.
If he was right, the whole picture of cosmic evolution given by
the Big Bang — of a universe that began in a blaze of fire and gas
14 billion years ago and slowly condensed into stars, galaxies and
creatures over the eons — would have to go out the window.
A vast majority of astronomers dismissed Dr. Arp’s results as
coincidences or optical illusions. But his data appealed to a small,
articulate band of astronomers who supported a rival theory of the
universe called Steady State and had criticized the Big Bang over
the decades. Among them were Fred Hoyle of Cambridge University, who
had invented the theory, and Geoffrey Burbidge, a witty and acerbic
astrophysicist at the University of California, San Diego. Dr. Arp
survived both of them.
“When he died, he took a whole cosmology with him,” said Barry F.
Madore, a senior research associate at the Carnegie Observatories in
Halton Christian Arp was born on March 21, 1927, in New York City,
the only son of August and Anita Arp. His father was an artist and
his mother ran institutions for children and adolescents. Halton grew
up in Greenwich Village and various art colonies and did not go to
school until fifth grade. After bouncing around public schools in New
York, he was sent to Tabor Academy, on Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts,
a prep school for the United States Naval Academy.
After a year in the Navy, he attended Harvard, where he majored in
astronomy. He graduated in 1949 and went on to obtain a Ph.D. in
1953 at the California Institute of Technology, which had started an
astronomy graduate program to prepare for the advent of the 200-inch
At Harvard, he became one of the best fencers in the United States,
ultimately competing in world championship matches in Paris in 1965.
Cutting a dashing figure, he would adopt a fencer’s posture when
giving talks. “He would strut across the stage and then strut back,
as if he were dueling,” Dr. Madore said.
Dr. Arp married three times. He is survived by his third wife,
Marie-Helene Arp, an astronomer in Munich; four daughters, Kristana,
Alissa, Andrice and Delina Arp; and five grandchildren.
Dr. Arp became a staff astronomer at the Hale Observatories after
stints as a postdoctoral fellow at the Carnegie Institution for Science
and Indiana University. His breakthrough occurred, as he recalled,
on a rainy night at Palomar in 1966, when he decided to investigate a
chance remark by a colleague that many of his peculiar galaxies had
radio sources near them in the sky. Looking them up in the Palomar
library, he realized that many of those radio sources were quasars that
could have been shot out of a nearby galaxy, an idea first explored
by the Armenian astronomer Victor Ambartsumian a decade earlier.
“It is with reluctance that I come to the conclusion that the redshifts
of some extragalactic objects are not due entirely to velocity causes,”
Dr. Arp wrote in a paper a year later.
He combed the sky for more evidence that redshifts were not ironclad
indicators of cosmic distance, knowing that he was striking at the
heart of modern cosmology. He turned out to be an expert at finding
quasars in suspicious places, tucked under the arm of a galaxy or at
the end of a tendril of gas.
One of the most impressive was a quasarlike object known as Markarian
205, which had a redshift corresponding to a distance of about a
billion light years but appeared to be in front of a galaxy only 70
million light years away.
The redshift controversy came to a boil in 1972, when Dr. Arp engaged
in a debate, arranged by the American Association for the Advancement
of Science, with John N. Bahcall, a young physicist at the Institute
for Advanced Study. Timothy Ferris described the event in his book
“The Red Limit” (1977): “When the debate was over, it was difficult not
to be impressed with Arp’s sincerity and his love for the mysterious
galaxies he studied, but it was also difficult to feel that his case
had suffered anything short of demolition.”
As Dr. Arp’s colleagues lost patience with his quest, he was no
longer invited to speak at major conferences, and his observing time
on the mighty 200-inch telescope began to dry up. Warned in the early
1980s that his research program was unproductive, he refused to change
course. Finally, he refused to submit a proposal at all on the grounds
that everyone knew what he was doing. He got no time at all.
Dr. Arp took early retirement and joined the Max Planck Institute for
Astrophysics near Munich, where he continued to promote his theories.
He told his own side of the redshift story in a 1989 book, “Quasars,
Redshifts and Controversies.”