The Universe or Nothing: The Starry Biography of Mexican Astronomer Guillermo Haro Barraza

10/07/2021

It is said that a man is great in science if he has three good ideas. If he has more than four, he could be compared to Newton. In the case of Guillermo Haro, according to Dr. Emmanuel Méndez Palma, he had more than four fantastic ideas from the moment he explored with the Schmidt camera the northern sky he observed above the town of Tonantzintla, Puebla. He took thousands of plates in 1942 in the middle of the world war and discovered the Herbig-Haro objects HH1 and HH2 that give us the possibility to know the age of the universe and how it was formed.

Since he was a child, Guillermo Haro told his mother Leonor: "I am going to discover how a star is born". What did Guillermo Haro mean for science in Mexico? What did he do for Mexico? Born on March 21, 1942, his mother named him Benito after Benito Juarez. One afternoon, the boy asked her where the world ended and she decided to take him "farther than the naked eye can see".

From his encounter with the sky and with the great astronomers of his time, Guillermo Haro decided to deal with all things celestial and became friends with astronomers such as Harlow Shapley, the Englishman Fred Hoyle, the Hindu Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, and above all the Russian Viktor Ambartsumian; Guillermo sharpened his capacity for discussion. If before he challenged his teachers, later he challenged his students and sent them to the great universities of the United States and Europe to measure themselves against the best. He accompanied them with letters, scholarships, and admonitions. He discussed with them because from curiosity and criticism knowledge is born. From a very young age, his disciples became accustomed to asking why and for what purpose we are here on earth.

Guillermo Haro Barraza

Guillermo Haro was born in Mexico City on March 21, 1913. In 1941 he joined the Tonantzintla Astrophysical Observatory as an assistant and during 1943 and 1944 he carried out studies and research work at the Harvard University Astronomical Observatory. Later he was a researcher at the Astrophysical Observatory of Tonantzintla and the Astronomical Observatory of Tacubaya.

He was deputy director (1948) and director (1951) of the former and, in 1949, of the latter. At the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) he promoted scholarships for the best students of the Faculty of Sciences, which is the reason why there are currently highly specialized personnel and new observation stations in Tonantzintla and in the San Pedro Mártir mountain range, in Baja California.

Guillermo Haro was director and advisor of the Institute of Astronomy and a full-time researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). He collaborated as editor of the bulletins of the Tonantzintla and Tacubaya observatories, as well as in the national newspaper Excélsior.

Guillermo Haro contributed to the development of astronomy, especially with the Schmidt telescope at Tonantzintla. Among his discoveries were the detection of numerous planetary nebulae in the direction of the center of the galaxy and the discovery (made simultaneously by George Herbig) of condensations of high-density clouds next to regions rich in newly formed stars (now called Herbig-Haro object). Haro and his colleagues discovered blazing stars in the Orion region, and later in stellar aggregates of different ages. He continued his intense activity detecting flares throughout his life.

Another major project carried out by Guillermo Haro was the listing of 8,746 blue stars in the direction of the Galactic North Pole Galactic Coordinates, published jointly with W. J. Luyten in 1961. This work was done with the 48-inch Schmidt telescope at Palomar Observatory using a technique employing three-color imaging that he had developed at Tonantzintla. At least 50 of these objects ended up as quasars (celestial body unknown in 1961). Haro's list of 44 blue galaxies, compiled in 1956, was a precursor to the work of Benjamin Egishevich Markarian (among others) in the search for such galaxies.

He also discovered several T Tauri stars, a supernova plus 10 novae, and a comet. In collaboration with Professors Luyten and Zwicky, he organized the First Conference on Blue Stars, held in Strasbourg in August 1964, and together with Drs. Samuel Ramos and Elí de Gortari founded the Seminar on Scientific and Philosophical Problems, which promoted the publication of 27 books and a good number of popularization booklets. Some 70 papers in his specialty were published, among them "Comet Haro-Chavira" (1955), "Supernova in a spiral galaxy" (1959), "Eruptive variables in the galactic halo" (1961), "Flare stars" (1968), "On the photoelectric photometry of some Orion flare stars" (1969) and "New flare stars in the Pleiades" (1970).

Guillermo Haro was a member of the American Astronomical Society, the Royal Astronomical Society of England, and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, among many others. He was President of the Academy of Scientific Research. On July 6, 1953, he joined El Colegio Nacional, and that same year he received the Gold Medal "Luis G. León" from the Mexican Astronomical Society. In 1962 he was awarded the Honorary Medal of the Armenian Academy of Sciences. He died on April 27, 1988, in Mexico City.

Asking questions is a sign of intelligence

Guillermo Haro always questioned the established and never forgot to read the night sky. In Tonantzintla, Guillermo Haro spent the best years of his life, and with the Schmidt camera focused on the night sky, he discovered blue stars, comets, and objects that bear his name: Herbig-Haro. He also learned from popular wisdom because Toñita, the girl who made the best mushroom quesadillas in the state of Puebla, would warn him at five in the afternoon: "Today at night, you won't be able to observe", and Guillermo would ask her in surprise: "Why, Toñita?"; "Because the flies are flying too low".

According to two of his great disciples and members of El Colegio Nacional, Manuel Peimbert Sierra and Luis Felipe Rodríguez, who directs a scientific center in Morelia, thanks to Guillermo Haro, the number of astronomers grew from only five to 240 today. From INAOE ( National Institute of Optical and Electronic Astrophysics), founded by him, 250 doctors in optics have emerged, after two exceptional young men, Alejandro Cornejo and Daniel Malacara, who today directs an optics center in León, Guanajuato. He promoted science in the interior of the country. Haro not only took care of the sky, but he also founded the INIC (National Institute for Scientific Research), the predecessor of the current Conacyt, and with courage and lucidity, he promoted the Siglo XXI publishing house.

He was the youngest member of El Colegio Nacional, which he joined when he was only 40 years old, on July 6, 1953, at 8 p.m. and was received by his beloved Alfonso Reyes, who spoke of the atom and the star. In the thirties, forties, and fifties, young people were heading for the Law corral and what mattered least to them was whether or not the Earth was the center of creation. Today, enrollment in scientific careers at UNAM exceeds 300 applicants.

Guillermo Haro with international impact

As Dr. José Franco, former director of "Universum" at UNAM, says, Mario Molina is not the only one. Guillermo Haro received the Lomonosov, the Russian Nobel Prize, and if Mexican scientists can now see farther, it is because they are standing on the shoulders of exceptional beings who knew how to build institutions such as Conacyt and achieved, among other things, that San Pedro Mártir, started by Haro and finished by Arcadio Poveda, was one of the four best observatories in the world.

How to integrate science into the growth of the country and how to get industry to contribute to the advancement of science? It was the concern of Guillermo Haro who demanded the creation of laboratories so that young people who had finished their doctorates in the most renowned universities abroad could return to Mexico. Decentralizing higher education, promoting it in the provinces, fighting against idleness and politicking, creating a scientific movement throughout the country was one of his constant and desperate efforts because he was distressed by the mental retardation and lack of vision of both politicians and businessmen.

He was consoled by the fact that science is an infinite process that scientists are chaining together. Knowledge is advancing, every day more is known, every hour a new discovery can be added that modifies reality. Unlike a literary work, science cannot be given an endpoint. "He who comes after me will go much farther, just as I went farther than my predecessor."

As the Case Institute of Technology of Cleveland said when awarding him the honorary degree of Doctor of Science, Guillermo Haro dedicated his life to the enlightenment of his fellow men. His natural curiosity and enormous courage led him to remarkable astronomical discoveries and to pioneering the understanding of star formation theory and stellar evolution. His work brought renown to UNAM and Mexico. "In future years, students and astronomers of many nations will benefit from your studies and discoveries, Dr. Haro," recognized the astronomers of the world's universities and, for this very reason, the Russians awarded him the Lomonosov Prize, which is equivalent to the Nobel Prize in the field of science.

Guillermo Haro gave his life to astronomy, put Mexican science at the level of developed countries, did cutting-edge research with the means of a third world country, and did good to Mexico, to his disciples, to those who followed him, to those who believed in him, to those who loved him and to those who did not love him for nagging.

Sources: Ministry of Public Education and an excerpt from an article by Elena Poniatowska via CIENCIA UANL / No. 82