Aden Meinel's Wartime Experiences: How Luck and Schmidt Plates Changed the Course of History

7. October 2011

by John Howard and Christina Folz

On Sunday, 2 October, the optics and astronomy communities lost one of their brightest stars when Aden Meinel passed away at the age of 88. Meinel founded the Kitt Peak Observatory and the Optical Sciences Center at the University of Arizona. He also served as associate director of the Yerkes Observatory and on the site survey team for the National Astronomical Observatory. He was, by all accounts, a remarkable scientist and person--as demonstrated in recent tributes by OSA, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, and the Arizona Daily Star. Among the many awards he received, he was honored with OSA's Adolph Lomb Medal and Ives Medal. He became an OSA Fellow in 1965 and he took the office of president in 1970.  

A couple of years ago, Steve Jacobs at the University of Arizona was kind enough to forward us some of Aden's recollections of his service during World War II, which were published in OPN's history column in two parts. The first, published in June 2009, recounts his experiences as a naval officer. The second, published in July/August, relays the beginnings of Aden's fruitful career after his military service came to an end.

Back in 1940, Meinel was 18 years old and just starting college at Caltech. He had a part-time job as an apprentice in the optical fabrication laboratory of Roger Hayward. There, he learned how to grind and polish lenses, and how to make aspheric Schmidt corrector plates for telescopes. Aden had a girlfriend, Marjorie Petit, an astronomy student whose father was working with the 150-foot solar telescope at Mount Wilson. The two married a couple years later, and Aden received his draft notice the week after returning from their honeymoon (but before graduating from Caltech).

Meinel was assigned to Patton's 3rd army for the crossing of the Rhine. He led a convoy of trucks carrying optical equipment--including two captured Soviet periscopes--from Jena to Dover. Aden also helped phyicists and engineers from Zeiss and Schott to escape to the West. Twenty years later, Aden and Marjorie reunited with some of the scientists they had helped at that time. They also discovered that a woman from their church in their home town of Henderson, Nev.--who during the war had been only 13 years old--had trudged along a road near Nordhausen with scores of other refugees heading West; Aden was in a Jeep about 10 km from where she walked.

But perhaps the most remarkable twist of fate was the fact that Aden had received orders to report back to Caltech just days before he had been scheduled for duty on a beautiful new ship called the U.S.S. Indianapolis. At the time, Aden couldn't believe he was returning already to his "same old desk." Little did he know then how kind fate was being to him. After delivering bombs to Tinian, the Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine on its way to Manila. Only about 300 out of 1,200 soldiers survived; most died from exposure, dehydration and shark attacks as they waited for assistance while floating at sea for four days. It is considered the worst naval disaster in U.S. history.

Aden and Marjorie went on to have seven children. After the kids were raised, Marjorie returned to her career and joined Meinel as a distinguished visiting scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Together, they helped to develop the next generation of space telescope concepts. They even coauthored an OPN article on extremely large sparse aperture telescopes.

It's strange to think about how history would have been altered if the timing of Aden's military orders had been just a little bit different. Aden joked that learning how to make Schmidt plates had saved him from having a very short life. How much richer the world is because of it.


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Joseph Shaw
10/8/2011 6:27:18 AM #
Aden and Marjorie's book, "Sunsets, twilights, and evening skies," was an early favorite of mine. When I had the great pleasure of becoming an optics graduate student at the Arizona Optical Sciences Center, I wrote Aden a letter thanking him for the guidance and inspiration he had given me without knowing it. I talked to him about wanting to pursue a career in atmospheric optics, building on the degree I was working to earn at the center he founded. Aden took the time to send me a personal letter, encouraging me to stay true to my passion. He assured me that there were many unsolved problems waiting for someone who was willing to ask the questions and perhaps develop the new tools. I stayed in contact loosely over the years, and last emailed him just a week before he passed away. I was trying to arrange a visit, which I am sorry to say will not happen in this life. Thanks to Aden Meinel - one of my heros!
10/12/2011 11:37:20 PM #
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