Olaf Hassel, Deaf Astronomer From Norway

We know that there are many people in the world of science of recognized prestige who have become deaf. Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb and the telegraph, began to be deaf at the age of 12 and, by the way, he considered that his deafness allowed him to avoid distractions and concentrate better on his work. Frenchman Charles Nicolle, who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1928, became completely deaf at the age of 20, making him the first deaf Nobel Prize winner in history (when he was 62). The Australian-British John Cornforth won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1975 and became deaf at the age of 10, remaining completely deaf at the age of 20.

However, there are many other scientists who were born deaf and their contributions to science were also recognised, although fewer famous. Among these people is Olaf Hassel, deaf from birth and a Norwegian astronomer who discovered a comet and a nova.

Olaf Hassel (photo: andata.no)

Discovery of Hassel's Comet in 1939

Olaf discovered a new, hitherto unknown comet on 15 April 1939. However, he registered his finding at the Astronomical Observatory the next day, as he could not do so by telephone like other astronomers of his time. On the same day, the comet was also sighted by two other Russian astronomers, so the comet was eventually named Comet Jurlov-Achmarov-Hassel.

Comet Jurlov-Achmarov-Hassel (photo: Rise Hvezd, nº 6-7, 1.VI.1939)

Discovery of the Herculis nova 1960

A nova is the birth of a new star, which is produced by the thermonuclear explosion with the imbalance between the gravity of a star and its nuclear fuel, hydrogen. Well, Olaf Hassel discovered a nova in 1960 that was initially called nova Hassel (a temporary name) and was officially registered as nova Herculis 1960, as this is the official procedure for registering novas: the constellation in which the star can be seen and the year of discovery.

As an anecdote, it was his wife Marie who woke up that morning of March 7th 1960 to Ola Hassel, at 5:20am. At first he had doubts that it was a nova, but when he finally confirmed it at 5:30am, he told his wife at breakfast: "this is the most important day of my life". So that it wouldn't be the same as the discovery of the comet in 1939, he immediately sent a telegram to the Astronomical Observatory in Copenhagen and there they confirmed that he was indeed the first person to see the nova.

Olaf's discovery of the nova was reported in the newspapers and he was awarded the King's Gold Medal of Merit in 1970, in the presence of King Olaf of Norway and 80 other scientific personalities, with a reward of NOK 2,500. Olaf had built a system for waking up at certain hours and observing the sky, but that morning he had been woken up by his wife Marie, so he said: "My Marie has the main merit of the first discovery of a Norwegian nova and has received NOK 200 as a reward".
The system built by Olaf Hassel as an alarm clock consisted of an alarm clock on the bed which, at a certain time, would drop a cushion on his head (picture: andata.no)

From Farmer To Prestigious Astronomer

Ola Hassel was born in 1898 on a small farm near Kongsberg in southern Norway and attended a school for the deaf in Oslo between 1907 and 1915. His passion for astronomy has a curious beginning: when he was attending this school, the First World War started at the end of July 1914, which extended his holidays. Just before the holidays, Olaf had bought a small book from another older student at the school, which contained a map of the stars in the sky.

From then on, he dedicated his whole life to astronomy, studying mathematics by correspondence (the rudimentary method of distance learning at the time), as his father decided that his place was on the farm, observing the stars and reading books. In 1926 he bought his first telescope from his own savings and, with the experience of the years, acquired better equipment until he specialised in astronomical photography and in 1941 was hired as an assistant by the Institute of Meteorology. From 1969 he was appointed an honorary member of the Norwegian Astronomical Society.

Olaf was a very active member of the Norwegian deaf community, often giving lectures to deaf people about his work. This is one of the few videos that can be found of Olaf:

Despite the many recognitions and merits that he received throughout his life, Olaf died in sad circumstances: from 1970 onwards, several of his brothers and sisters died, which left him in a deep depression that finally led to his death. But we should certainly remember him for his important scientific contribution to astronomy.

Olaf Hassel on the roof of the Meteorological Institute (photo: andata.no / Norsk Døvehistorisk Selskap)


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