"To the young astronomers in Czechoslovakia I would like to send a message, not to listen to what the old people say (often disappointed in life); in many cases the life has evaporated from them in spite of the positions that they can still occupy from force of habit; and to drive their lives in the direction where they feel that our science can benefit most from their talents. Do not worry too much about the future - which is still non-extrapolative - do set your navigation course to the stars, not to the position lights of the surrounding vessels."
(Z. K., 1989)
Young Zdeněk in his interest in natural science was mostly influenced by his grandfather from the mother's side Josef Lelek (1860 - 1930), teacher (natural science, literary history) at the grammar school in Jičín, whose colleague was Božena Němcová´s daughter Dora. She gave Josef Lelek some of her mother's letters, which thus ended up in the archived estate of Zdeněk Kopal in Litomyšl. But this is ahead of the story, of course.
Why did he decide to become an astronomer?
In 1923 Josef Kopal´s family moved to Prague where, according to Zdeněk Kopal´s memories, the young student became an amateur entomologist first, still under the influence of grandfather Lelek. But it was when he walked home from visiting the respective department in the National Museum, on 31 July 1928 there was an incident that determined the principle of his later scientific interest: at the corner near the Legions Bridge he saw a man who offered a view of the sunspots with an astronomer's telescope for a payment. This deeply affected young Kopal and he decided to build his own telescope. He managed this within a couple of days and with this apparatus, the optical parameters of which were similar to those of Galileo's telescope from 1609, he studied the sky and was very excited by this.
Kopal and the Czech Astronomical Society
In the autumn of the same year he learned about the existence of the Czech Astronomical Society (CAS), which at that time was just building the stefanik Observatory at Petřín, and he began to visit Petřín regularly. At the age of less than fifteen he became a member of cAS. Beside the proper telescopes cAS possessed a high-quality library with popular as well as specialised volumes and this was even more precious for Kopal´s interest than peering on the sky. He focused on the research of variable stars that had a long tradition in this country since the time of Professor Vojtěch Šafařík (1829 - 1902), he began his regular expert observations and processed them promptly.
His fame grew incredibly quickly and at the age of sixteen he was appointed chairman of the expert section of CAS for the observation of variable stars. In the same year he happened to have to give a lecture as a cover for the ill chairman of cAS, honourable Professor František Nušl (1867 - 1951) and this was the first time for him to speak about his later life interest: close binary stars that make themselves visible by strictly periodical changes in brightness. At the age of seventeen he sent his observations and their interpretation to foreign scientific magazines and published a popular work on variable stars. He corresponded with foreign astronomers and astounded them with his informed questions during their lectures in Prague. None of them was aware that they were speaking to a pupil in the "sexta" class at a Prague grammar school; they thought he was a young secondary school teacher. And as the custom is in the Czech lands, he harvested the first fruits of jealousy: the Astronomische Nachrichten magazine received a report from Prague that Zdeněk Kopal was a grammar school student and therefore his work ought not to be published.
Admission to the International Astronomical Union
When Kopal passed his school-leaving examination with honours in June 1933, he had made a number of considerable achievements in astronomy and naturally enlisted to the Faculty of Natural Science at Charles University to study mathematics, physics and astronomy. Besides Professor Nušl his teachers were the mathematicians Eduard Čech (1893-1960) and Václav Hlavatý (1894-1969), the physicists František Záviška (1879-1945) and Vojtěch Dolejšek (1895-1945) and the astronomers Wácslav Vladimír Heinrich (1884 -1965), Erwin Finlay-Freundlich (1885-1964) and Vincenc Nechvíle (1890-1964). Of the aforementioned Kopal recognised most the physicists, Nechvíle and Finlay-Freundlich. During his university studies Kopal attended the International Astronomical Union congress in Paris in 1935, was elected its member and established important professional contacts. One year later he organised a successful journey to see a full eclipse to Japan. He paid for the journey with the money he made by translating a popular scientific paper by the British astrophysicist Sir James Jeans into Czech.
Studies in Cambridge
In 1937 Kopal graduated with first class honours and obtained the prestigious Denis´ scholarship at the guru of international astrophysics of that period, Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) in Cambridge, Great Britain. In 1938 he returned to Prague, among other things in order to marry his grammar school fellow student Alena Müldnerová with whom he departed for a scholarship at the Harvard Observatory in Cambridge, US, after having spent their honeymoon in Italy. During their voyage across the Atlantic they heard about the Munich Agreement and learned about the consequences of this tragic event after having landed in the New World.
Research into close binary stars
Kopal began to work under the lead of the world-famous expert on light curves of close binary stars, the director of the local observatory Harlow Shapley (1885 - 1972). In the period long before computers he prepared efficient and sufficiently accurate numeric methods for the analysis of light curves of binary stars, from which it was possible to derive basic information about the parameters and mutual distances of the binary star elements, even their weight. These are basically the fundamental parameters of stars that nowadays cannot be obtained with sufficient accuracy by any other way but through the observation of binary stars.
Work for the American navy
Since 1942 Kopal worked in the famous M.I.T. on calculations for the American navy and army so he mastered both ballistics and aerodynamics. In his biography he notes to this: "… land forces and the navy have been allies during the war after all even though at times it was hard to believe that this was the case." His cooperation with Norbert Wiener (1894 - 1964) dates back to this period. As was Kopal´s custom, he became so excellent at aerodynamics that he became famous in the expert circles and when the NASA people met him as an astronomer after the launch of astronautics, they thought he was the son of the famous aerodynamist…
Encounter with Einstein
Kopal recalls another lovely event that took place after the war in Princeton where he met Albert Einstein and asked him how he remembered his stay in Prague and whether he had already worked on general relativity there. After a moment of thought Einstein answered that he had because he did not have to do any administration there. Philipp Frank, Einstein´s Prague successor at the Department of Physics, witnessed this conversation and explained this to Kopal from a rather different point of view. He told Kopal: "When Einstein gave up his professor's chair in Prague, he recommended me as his successor and his recommendation was accepted. When I took over the credentials from the dean and asserted my doubts as to whether I would be good enough successor to such a great man, the dean reassured me by saying: ´We do not require you to be a real genius. All I actually need from you is to respond to the official correspondence from the dean's office´."
Kopal is excellent at aerodynamics, astronomy as well as numeric mathematics - Roche´s equipotential surfaces
It is almost unbelievable that Kopal mastered not only aerodynamics but also astronomy practically at the same time. In the years 1946 - 1950 he published his most important works, which marked a great progress in the research of close binary stars. He calculated good parameters of many dozens of close binary stars and thanks to this he realised that close binary stars cannot be of the same round shape as lonely stars but due to the gravitation of the other element are deformed into the shape of some kind of drops described in mathematical terms by so-called Roche´s equipotential surfaces. This was a breakthrough resulting in a stormy boom in the profession beginning in the 1960s. These studies would not be possible without an accompanying development in the numerical methods, which Kopal took care of himself and thus became a leading expert in numerical mathematics - again, not too many people knew that he was a single person who became a renowned expert in three different fields (Numerical Analysis, Wiley, New York, 1955; 1961).
Kopal heads the Department of Astronomy at the University of Manchester
In the summer of 1947 Bohumil Bydžovský (1880 - 1969), rector of Charles University, visited Harvard University to find out whether the famous Doctor Kopal would like to take over the Department of Astronomy at the Charles University in Prague. Kopal liked the idea but the talks drew out and the "Victorious February" ruined the prospect completely. At that time Kopal had American citizenship and in 1948 he became an associate professor of numerical mathematics at M.I.T. At the same time, he was elected first president of the newly formed 42nd IAU commission for photometric binary stars and so his binary star career successfully continued.
However, at the beginning of 1950 his old acquaintance, Professor Finlay-Freundlich from Scotland, advised him that a department of astronomy was being opened at the Manchester University and that he wished to recommend Kopal there, if he agreed. Kopal was interested, received an excellent offer from the University and in the summer 1951 he moved to the United Kingdom where he worked until the end of his life. He ran the department in a peculiar way. He took advantage of the fact that part of the University was a radio astronomical observatory in Jodrell Bank built after the war by renowned Sir Bernard Lovell (*1913, designer of the largest telescope in the world at that time, its diameter was 76 m) and learned from the radio technicians to use the method of Fourier´s analysis for astronomical astrophysics on the first generation electronic computers.
In 1954 young Doctor Miroslav Plavec who until then had studied mainly the movement of meteor showers came to Jodrell Bank and was immediately attracted to numerical calculations for binary stars. Three years later Professor Kopal came to Prague for the first time since the war and put in a good word to the chairman of the Czechoslovak Academy of Science, Zdeněk Nejedlý, to build a 2m telescope in Ondřejov. Also during his later visits during the time of milder restrictions to foreign relations he kept encouraging both Doctor Plavec and his students to develop model calculations for binary stars on computers, which actually took place. Kopal, in spite of his long stay abroad, continied to speak excellent Czech - later slightly archaic - and remained an exemplary patriot. He forced American as well as British printers to print his first name with the proper accent above the "e" and it is visible in many cases that the poor printers had to add it by hand. He also took pleasure in torturing his American friends who had to try to pronounce
the name of a village in the Czech Paradise, the birthplace of his father, Romanist Professor Josef Kopal - the name of the village is Hřmenín. When he was editor-in-chief of the Astrophysics and Space Science magazine, his passion for diacritical signs went so far that he nicknamed the Slovak author Doctor Laco Hric as "Hríč" and therefore these works do not usually count in a citation analysis...
Cooperation with NASA on researching the Moon
While in Ondřejov binary stars boomed, Kopal was almost through with them. In 1959 his monograph Close Binary Systems (Wiley, New York) was published summarising the results of his twenty-year work in the field, but one year earlier he began to cooperate with NASA on researching the Moon because contemplations about the voyage of man to the Moon had begun. At the French mountain observatory Pic du Midi, thousands of detailed photographs of the Moon in various phases were taken gradually, and were rectified and processed in Manchester and Pasadena (JPL) in order to serve for the scheduling of piloted flights and missions of pilot-free lunar probes. Kopal became an external JPL expert, kept travelling in the triangle Pic du Midi - Manchester - Pasadena and, as was his custom, became a leading personality in the field when he published the flagship monograph The Moon (Reidel, Dordrecht 1969). He himself recalled this period in his own way: "I liked to work at JPL best - maybe because its roots reached to our country. Its founder was
Professor Theodor von Karman - an excellent aerodynamist who in the First World War worked (successfully) for the Emperor (it was" not Karman´s fault that Franz Josef I lost it - just like all the wars of his life). Karman´s successor - František Malina - was Karman´s student and came from Valachia in Moravia (attended a school in Valašské Meziříčí for some time); and after his retirement (when I appeared on the scene) he studied history of art. And the third half-Moravian from JPL (myself) was recently (1991) elected an honorary citizen of my native Litomyšl."
In 1967, while the preparations for the Apollo flight were culminating, he came to Prague to the XIII congress of IAU and married his daughter Zdeňka in St. Vitus´ Cathedral. At the same time, he was appointed honorary member of the CAS. When American astronauts brought samples of lunar rocks from the Moon, the NASA leadership gave Professor Kopal a pinch of lunar dust in recognition of his merits. Kopal decided to dedicate this precious gift to the memory of a man who he had highly respected in his youth and who in his work "To the Moon" rather realistically predicted the piloted voyage to our fellow traveller - Jules Verne. On the occasion of the next visit to France he stopped in Amiens and buried the lunar dust in the ground on Verne's grave.
Honorary citizen of Litomyšl
After the Soviet invasion the native ground was once again closed for him, but this time for a longer period of time. In Manchester Kopal educated students not only from the United Kingdom but also from Japan, Greece and many developing countries, he founded and edited the international scientist magazines Icarus, Earth, Moon and Planets and Astrophysics and Space Science, organised international conferences and summer schools, worked in many scientific committees and travelled almost continuously.
Paradoxically though, he was no longer able to get on the train that he himself has set going. He could not keep pace neither with the great boom of the close binary stars research, which in this country was represented mainly by Miroslav Plavec and Petr Harmanac, in other countries mainly by Polish and German astrophysicists nor with the amazing findings for binary stars, such as the discovery of duality of novae, binary pulsars and X-ray binaries.
In 1981 Professor Kopal formally retired, and began to write his memoirs, which were published first in English and later in Czech and after the revolution could visit his native country again. In 1991 he accepted honorary citizenship of his native Litomyšl and in 1992 visited Prague for the last time to attend the 1st local congress of the Czech exile Society of Science and Art. His lecture that was given on this occasion was published in the Vesmir magazine almost simultaneously with the announcement of his death in Manchester on 23 July 1993.
In November of the same year, Kopal´s testimony was fulfilled and his body was laid to rest at the Slavín cemetery at Vyšehrad in the presence of representatives of the Academy of Science of the Czech Republic and Charles University as well as the Czech astronomers community. In accordance with his testimony Professor Kopal´s expert archives including the famous snaps of the Moon have been put to the city archives in Litomyšl. In 1994 - 1995 an exhibition was held named "Zdeněk Kopal - Life Dedicated to Space" and the city is now preparing greater celebrations with international attendance for the 90th anniversary of Kopal´s birth.
Czech astronomer number one of the past century
Professor Kopal published some 400 papers and about 50 books during his life. In the poll of Czech astronomers at the end of the 20th century he was designated by a vast majority the most significant Czech astronomer. The IAU named a small planet (2628) Kopal, which was discovered by S. J. Bus in 1978 at the Siding Spring observatory in Australia and the discovery was confirmed by E. F. Helin at Mt. Palomar in 1979. The official rationale explains: "Named in honour of astronomer Zdeněk Kopal (1914 - 1993) who was born in Bohemia and worked as head of the astronomy department at the Victoria University in Manchester from 1951 - 1981. Kopal was an international authority in the research of close variable stars, Moon and terrestrial planets and played a leading role in the Moon research supported by NASA. The name was proposed by E. Helin and seconded by E.M.Shoemaker."
Books by Zdeněk Kopal published in Czech after 1945
Z. Kopal: Zpráva o vesmíru (Report on Space), (Mladá fronta, Praha 1976)
Z. Kopal: Vesmírní sousedé naší planety (Space Neighbours of our Planet), (Academia, Praha 1984)
Z. Kopal: O hvězdách a lidech; Vzpomínky astronomovy (Of Stars and Men; Astronomer's Memoirs),(Mladá fronta, Praha 1991 - amended and extended volume of the English original Of Stars and Men, A. Hilger, London 1986.)
Z. Kopal: Astronomie v Čechách (Astronomy in Bohemia), (Vesmír 72:1993, no. 7, 394 - speech at the SVU congress in Prague, 28. 6. 1992)