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05 September 2009

Born under a lucky star 

Bengt G.D. Strömgren (1908-1987) grew up under the scientific influence of his father, Elis Strömgren, who was a Professor of Astronomy. Bengt began his academic career early with a student job at what we today call the Niels Bohr Institute. 

Bengt Strömgren was born in Göteborg 1908 to the astronomer Svante Elis Strömgren and Hedvig Strömgren, a dentist. The family Strömgren soon moved to the Copenhagen University Observatory at Østervold 3 where Elis had been appointed Professor of Astronomy.

The Copenhagen University Observatory at Øster Voldgade 3, photographed at the turn of the century. This is where Bengt Strömgren grew up and became a Professor himself and leader of the observatory in 1940. The Botanical Gardens are still behind the observatory. (source: Rebsdorf 2005, s. 54).

A young talent grows up surrounded by astronomy

Bengt grew up surrounded by astronomy at the observatory, which was often visited by prominent foreign scientists, including Albert Einstein. Following the end of the First World War, Bengt's father began to teach his son advanced mathematics. During the Spanish Influenza in January 1919 saw his chance to instruct Bengt, when the Metropolitan School was closed for several months due to the influenza epidemic. However, it was not the usual mathematics assignments the father subjected his 11 year old son to, but rather advanced mathematical analysis.

Elis, Erik (Bengt's brother) and Bengt Strömgren in the professor's office, Copenhagen University Observatory, ca. 1925. At only 11 years old, Bengt received intensive instruction from his father in advanced mathematics, including numerical integration and differentiation, complex numbers, partial integration and trigonometry. In comparison with the curriculum as it is taught today, that type of analytical mathematics is not encountered until the first year of scientific studies at the university level. Source: Ole Strömgren.

First publication at the age of 14

At the observatory Bengt Strömgren learned to operate a time-determination instrument. Until the Danish breakthrough in mass communications in 1924 there were no telephone or radio signals to indicate the time and one of the observatory's most important tasks was to determine Danish time. Bengt Strömgren helped with the work, became involved in determining the positions of stars and began his first regular programme of observation in 1921. The following year - when he was 14 years old - his first publication came out in the form of a table of the data for an observed comet. This was compiled in collaboration with his father and three assistants at the observatory.

Student job at the Niels Bohr Institute

During his first year at gymnasium Bengt Strömgren began to work as a laboratory assistant at Niels Bohr's "Institute for Theoretical Physics" (UITF) on Blegdamsvej. And after graduation Bengt enrolled in the University of Copenhagen, the same year his first solo-article was published in a Swedish scientific journal. Elis worked unceasingly to help his eldest son get ahead on the scientific scene. In addition to private instruction, he took his son along to numerous scientific congresses, helped him with the publication of articles and on the whole made a continuous effort to hasten his talented son's career - and Bengt Strömgren hardly had any other choice.

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