I’ve been thinking about a German named Bernhard Voldemar Schmidt. Schmidt was so fascinated by stars and galaxies and space that he worked as an unpaid astronomer at the observatory in Hamburg in 1929. He invented a new kind of telescope that allowed the viewer to take large, fast photographs of the stars. Fritz Zwicky, who discovered black holes, used a Schmidt telescope at Palomar in California. Since then, thanks to Schmidt, there has been a tradition of devoted amateurs making important discoveries in space through small but powerful telescopes based on Schmidt’s design.
What made me think about Schmidt all day– as if that wasn’t enough– was this paragraph:
When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Schmidt was so disgusted that he gave up hope and quietly drank himself to death.
That’s true poetry. A man who, through his dedication and ingenuity, gave the world a gift, that helped people contemplate the mysteries and beauties of the universe, of space, of colliding meteors and comets and collapsing stars, and even of time itself, as the universe continues to fling itself outward madly…. that this man should drink himself to death when his own universe contracted around him into a black hole of hatred and bigotry. It’s too much.
Technically, he died of pneumonia. More accurately: cognac. He spent the last year of his life in an asylum. He died on December 1, 1935, Wiki says he had just returned from a vacation in Holland. In December?
I can’t find any reference to wife or children.
He lost his right hand and fore-arm in an accident involving experiments with gunpowder when he was fifteen.
He sang a broken hallelujah to his grave.
I know, I know– he was kind of pathetic. You might even say he was a loser. It’s hard to be sympathetic to a man who gave up. It helps no one to give up and let yourself sink into a morass of self-pity and despair.
But I have a soft spot for Bernhard Schmidt because though he did not become a force for a change or a resistance leader or a leading dissident, he saw the truth and lived the truth the only way he thought he could. I don’t even know if he was wrong. It might be truthful to say that any action he could have taken, given his time and circumstance, would have been useless.
There should be an international prize called the “Bernhard Schmidt”. And it should go to the person who best exemplifies the spirit of dismay and grief at the incredible persistence of stupidity, bigotry, hatred, and violence in human affairs. The awarding committee, which should include Leonard Cohen, and Cyndi Lauper, will descend upon a bar somewhere, and move into a dark corner, and play a little fanfare on the ukulele and kazoo, hand over the award– a crystal beer mug– and then race back to their headquarters in the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam to begin considering nominations for next year’s prize.