Edward Robert Harrison

Edward Robert Harrison

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Edward R. Harrison (8 January 1919 - 29 January 2007)

was a British
British people
The British are citizens of the United Kingdom, of the Isle of Man, any of the Channel Islands, or of any of the British overseas territories, and their descendants...

An astronomer is a scientist who studies celestial bodies such as planets, stars and galaxies.Historically, astronomy was more concerned with the classification and description of phenomena in the sky, while astrophysics attempted to explain these phenomena and the differences between them using...

 and cosmologist, who spent much of his career at the University of Massachusetts
University of Massachusetts
This article relates to the statewide university system. For the flagship campus often referred to as "UMass", see University of Massachusetts Amherst...

 and University of Arizona
University of Arizona
The University of Arizona is a land-grant and space-grant public institution of higher education and research located in Tucson, Arizona, United States. The University of Arizona was the first university in the state of Arizona, founded in 1885...

. He is noted for his work about the increase of fluctuations in the expanding universe, for his explanation of Olber's Paradox, and for his books on cosmology
Cosmology is the discipline that deals with the nature of the Universe as a whole. Cosmologists seek to understand the origin, evolution, structure, and ultimate fate of the Universe at large, as well as the natural laws that keep it in order...

 for lay readers.


Harrison's education at Sir John Cass Technical Institute was interrupted by World War II (WWII), during which he served for 6 years with the British Army in various military campaigns, eventually serving as Radar Adviser to the Northern Area of the Egyptian Army.

Following WWII, Harrison became a British Civil Servant, at first with the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in Harwell, and later, at the Rutherford High Energy Laboratory. During this time period, he attained the equivalent of university degrees, becoming a graduate, then an Associate, and finally a Fellow of the Institute of Physics. He also became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society
Royal Astronomical Society
The Royal Astronomical Society is a learned society that began as the Astronomical Society of London in 1820 to support astronomical research . It became the Royal Astronomical Society in 1831 on receiving its Royal Charter from William IV...

, the American Physical Society
American Physical Society
The American Physical Society is the world's second largest organization of physicists, behind the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft. The Society publishes more than a dozen scientific journals, including the world renowned Physical Review and Physical Review Letters, and organizes more than 20...

, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science
American Association for the Advancement of Science
The American Association for the Advancement of Science is an international non-profit organization with the stated goals of promoting cooperation among scientists, defending scientific freedom, encouraging scientific responsibility, and supporting scientific education and science outreach for the...


In 1965, Ted Harrison came to the USA as a NAS-NRC Senior Research Associate at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Goddard Space Flight Center
The Goddard Space Flight Center is a major NASA space research laboratory established on May 1, 1959 as NASA's first space flight center. GSFC employs approximately 10,000 civil servants and contractors, and is located approximately northeast of Washington, D.C. in Greenbelt, Maryland, USA. GSFC,...

, in Maryland. In 1966, he then became one of the three founders of the Astronomy Program within the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst
The University of Massachusetts Amherst is a public research and land-grant university in Amherst, Massachusetts, United States and the flagship of the University of Massachusetts system...

. Over the next 30 years, he influenced the revival of the Five College Astronomy Department, linking UMass to Amherst College
Amherst College
Amherst College is a private liberal arts college located in Amherst, Massachusetts, United States. Amherst is an exclusively undergraduate four-year institution and enrolled 1,744 students in the fall of 2009...

, Hampshire College
Hampshire College
Hampshire College is a private liberal arts college in Amherst, Massachusetts. It was founded in 1965 as an experiment in alternative education, in association with four other colleges in the Pioneer Valley: Amherst College, Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, and the University of Massachusetts...

, Smith College
Smith College
Smith College is a private, independent women's liberal arts college located in Northampton, Massachusetts. It is the largest member of the Seven Sisters...

, and Mount Holyoke College
Mount Holyoke College
Mount Holyoke College is a liberal arts college for women in South Hadley, Massachusetts. It was the first member of the Seven Sisters colleges, and served as a model for some of the others...

. He also played a key role in the rise to international prominence of the Five College graduate course in astronomy. At his death, he was emeritus Distinguished University Professor of Physics and Astronomy at UMass, and an adjunct professor at the Steward Observatory
Steward Observatory
The University of Arizona's Steward Observatorys main office is located on the University's campus and is closely tied to the Department of Astronomy. Established in 1916 by its first director, Andrew Ellicott Douglass, and a $60,000 bequest made by Lavinia Steward in memory of her late husband...

 of the University of Arizona.


Ted Harrison had broad interests, and he published more than 200 papers, primarily in astrophysics
Astrophysics is the branch of astronomy that deals with the physics of the universe, including the physical properties of celestial objects, as well as their interactions and behavior...

 and cosmology
Cosmology is the discipline that deals with the nature of the Universe as a whole. Cosmologists seek to understand the origin, evolution, structure, and ultimate fate of the Universe at large, as well as the natural laws that keep it in order...

, but also in space sciences, high energy physics, plasma physics and physical chemistry
Physical chemistry
Physical chemistry is the study of macroscopic, atomic, subatomic, and particulate phenomena in chemical systems in terms of physical laws and concepts...

. He was an elegant writer with a passion for the history of ideas. His books (cf. especially his text Cosmology) illustrated points of physics or cosmology with many literary, philosophical, and historical references.

His study of structure formation
Structure formation
Structure formation refers to a fundamental problem in physical cosmology. The universe, as is now known from observations of the cosmic microwave background radiation, began in a hot, dense, nearly uniform state approximately 13.7 Gyr ago...

 from primordial density perturbations in the cosmic plasma has led to the general use of the term Harrison-Zel'dovich spectrum for primordial random fluctuations characterised by a scale-invariant power spectrum. (The term also honors the Soviet physicist Yakov Borisovich Zel'dovich
Yakov Borisovich Zel'dovich
Yakov Borisovich Zel'dovich was a prolific Soviet physicist born in Belarus. He played an important role in the development of Soviet nuclear and thermonuclear weapons, and made important contributions to the fields of adsorption and catalysis, shock waves, nuclear physics, particle physics,...


Harrison was fascinated with Olber's Paradox (the night sky is dark despite the vast number of stars in the universe), and published in 1987 an entire book, Darkness at Night, mulling over the Paradox and its rich history. In 1964, he published detailed calculations that solved the paradox by concluding that stars do not generate enough energy to illuminate the entire sky. Darkness at Night states that this is not primarily because the universe is expanding, but rather because the stars and galaxies have had only about 15 billion years to radiate, and they do not have sufficient energy to keep radiating for much longer. Darkness at Night lays out how Harrison discovered that Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was an American author, poet, editor and literary critic, considered part of the American Romantic Movement. Best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, Poe was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective...

's essay Eureka anticipated this conclusion, and that Lord Kelvin had reached a very similar conclusion in a 1901 article ignored for 80 years until Harrison drew attention to it.

Harrison's text Cosmology: The Science of the Universe describes the problem of the cosmic edge of the universe by quoting 5th century BCE soldier-philosopher Archytas
Archytas was an Ancient Greek philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, statesman, and strategist. He was a scientist of the Pythagorean school and famous for being the reputed founder of mathematical mechanics, as well as a good friend of Plato....

, who questioned what occurs as a spear is hurled across the outer boundary of the universe.

His final book, Masks of the Universe (2nd ed., 2003), questions current perceptions of reality, asking whether present cosmology, with ordinary matter, dark matter
Dark matter
In astronomy and cosmology, dark matter is matter that neither emits nor scatters light or other electromagnetic radiation, and so cannot be directly detected via optical or radio astronomy...

, plus dark energy
Dark energy
In physical cosmology, astronomy and celestial mechanics, dark energy is a hypothetical form of energy that permeates all of space and tends to accelerate the expansion of the universe. Dark energy is the most accepted theory to explain recent observations that the universe appears to be expanding...

, is yet only another "mask" obscuring a Universe which will remain perforce forever unknown to humans.

Books by Harrison

  • 2003 (1985). Masks of the Universe. Cambridge Univ. Press. ISBN 978-0029487808
  • 2000 (1981). Cosmology: The Science of the Universe. Cambridge Univ. Press. ISBN 0-521-66148-X.
  • 1987. Darkness at Night: A Riddle of the Universe, Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674192706.
  • 1965. Elementary cosmology.