Personalities: Prof. RNDr. Zdenek Kopal (1914-1993) stamp from Czech Republic

Personalities: Prof. RNDr. Zdenek Kopal (1914-1993) stamp from Czech Republic

Ceska posta issued a stamp from the series "Personalities" dedicated to Zdenek Kopal.

Prof. RNDr. Zdenek Kopal, DrSc. (4. 4. 1914 in Litomysl – 23. 6. 1993 in Wilmslow, United Kingdom) was a Czech astronomer and astrophysicist, famous also in the fields of numerical mathematics, ballistics and aerodynamics. His most important scientific work was related to variable stars, especially close eclipsing binary stars, and he researched the Moon and terrestric planets. He is considered the most significant Czech astronomer of the 20th century. When he was a small boy, his grandfather Josef Lelek, a teacher at the council school in Jicin, awoke his interest in the natural sciences. So it was not surprising that at the age of only fifteen, when his family moved to Prague, he joined the Czech Astronomical Society. There at the Stefanik observatory, he began his research on variable stars and, still a high school student, he published several scholarly articles in international scientific journals.

In 1933 he graduated from secondary school with honors and enrolled, despite the insistence of his parents who wanted him a lawyer or doctor, in the study of mathematics, physics and astronomy at the Faculty of Natural Science at Charles University. During his studies he participated in the congress of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in Paris in 1935, where he was immediately accepted as a member on the basis of the works he had already published. In 1937 he graduated from the university and was awarded the prestigious Denis scholarship which enabled his further studies in the United Kingdom, in Cambridge, with the famous astrophysicist, Sir Arthur Eddington.

In 1938, he and his wife went on a scholarship-funded research trip to the Harvard Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. However, during the ship voyage they received news of the Munich Agreement and decided to stay in the U.S.A. Kopal worked there under the supervision of Harlow Shapley on the issue of light curves of binary stars. From 1942 he also worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on problems of ballistics and aerodynamics for the U.S. Army. On these projects he also collaborated with Norbert Wiener, especially in the field of numerical mathematics.

He was elected an honorary member of the Czech Astronomical Society (1967) and the astronomical societies in Liverpool, Salford and Manchester. He received honorary doctorates from universities in Cracow, Poland (1974) and Patras, Greece (1974). The Manchester Astronomical Society has been organizing the annual ceremonial Kopal lecture in his memory. In 2007, the Czech Astronomical Society followed its example and established a Kopal lecture as a form of appreciation of this important astronomer. In 1976 Kopal became a foreign member of the Greek Academy of Sciences in Athens and in 1978 he was made an honorary citizen of the city of Delphi. He was also granted honorary citizenship from his hometown of Litomysl in 1991. In the Czech Republic he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences in 1968 and a silver medal at Charles University in 1991.

Professor Kopal died on 23 June 1993 in Wilmslow near Manchester. He was buried at Vysehrad alongside other greats of Czech science and art. In accordance with his last will, the scholarly archive of Professor Kopal (also including images of the Moon from the Apollo flight preparation) was stored in the city archives in Litomysl

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