Prof. Harry van der Laan

ESO’s Director General from 1988 to 1992

Harry van der LaanHarry van der Laan was born in 1936 on a farm in Blyham, the Netherlands, and moved to Canada with his parents and siblings at the age of 16. After a variety of menial jobs as a boy, he entered the final year of high school, where he won two scholarships. These scholarships financed his honours course in Mathematics and Physics at Western University, for which he won the Gold Medal for Applied Mathematics and a scholarship for his doctorate studies at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University. He completed his PhD in Astronomy and Astrophysics in 1963, writing his thesis on non-thermal cosmic radio sources under the supervision of Sir Martin Ryle — the English radio astronomer and 1974 Nobel Prize winner.

After studying philosophy for a postdoc year at Amsterdam’s Free University, Van der Laan had a prominent career as a radio astronomer, beginning as an associate professor of astronomy at Western University. He was also a guest scientist at the HQ of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).

With Emil Blum (Observatoire de Meudon) and Peter Mezger (Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy), both also guest scientists at NRAO, he conceived the Young European Radio Astronomers Conference (YERAC), an annual meeting to break the isolation of the many small institutes in their discipline in Europe. YERAC continues after 50 years and has brought together thousands of European radio astronomers.

In 1967 Professor Jan Hendrik Oort persuaded van der Laan to join the Leiden Observatory to lead the preparations for the scientific exploitation of the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope (WSRT). The WSRT, based on the principles Ryle developed, was inaugurated in June 1970. At the end of that summer Professor Oort (*1900) retired and Leiden University appointed van der Laan as a full professor of radio astronomy. He stayed in Leiden for twenty years, serving the Leiden Observatory as its scientific director for much of that time, increasing his direct involvement in European astronomy.

He spent one academic year (1974–75) as visiting scientist in Princeton at the Institute for Advanced Study. He was twice a participant (1970 and 1981) in the coveted Semaines d’Etudes at the Pontifical Academy in Rome. From 1969 till 1987 he had, in addition to his Leiden work, the parallel responsibility of leading the Netherlands Foundation for Radio Astronomy, overseeing the radio observatories Dwingeloo and Westerbork as ‘Executive Board Member’.

Van der Laan played an important role in the Netherlands’ strong outreach tradition; as designer and chief editor of a television series on galaxies, as well as successfully proposing and lobbying The Hague’s city council to build a new space theatre, which over 13 million paying customers have since enjoyed.

At ESO, van der Laan was the first chairman of the Site Selection Committee for ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). As the chairman, van der Laan played a crucial role in the design and preparation period of the VLT — now called “Phase B”. This included site selection, key decisions on interferometry, and the awarding of the main industrial contracts.

His early leadership with the selection committee led him to an appointment as Director General of ESO in 1988. He was the third Dutchman in a row to lead the organisation. Becoming Director General gave van der Laan the challenging task of turning the VLT into a reality. Under his leadership, the VLT conceptual design underwent significant changes and reconsiderations to scientific requirements to ensure its long-term science capabilities. He insisted on the Cassegrain focus for the Unit Telescopes, brought special emphasis on adaptive optics, on VLTI, and insisted on a suite of instruments to be largely produced by consortia of community institutes under ESO supervision and cash support for industrial expenditures. The VLT first suite of instruments to be delivered on time and matching the opportunities of so many foci.

During his tenure as Director General, van der Laan developed a new organisational structure at ESO, moving away from the reasonably strict hierarchy of the time to a more inclusive, participatory management style. He promoted and fostered more exchanges, collaborations and cross border appointments throughout the member states of ESO, inspired the YERAC experience and by his time in North America where the astronomy community flourished in their lack of borders, and their shared history, language and culture. Van der Laan created the Student Programme, which brings young researchers from around Europe into the organisation, and the Key Programmes, which designated long-term observing time on ESO telescopes to specific astronomical topics for multi-member state groups.

Van der Laan continues to be a prominent figure in Dutch radio astronomy. After ESO he became a professor at Utrecht University and upon reaching his official retirement age — which he considers an outdated notion — he formed his company PROFAST (Professorial Advice in Science and Technology).

Retiring more or less at the age of 75, after 50 years of full time work, van der Laan continues as an active member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Science and several other institutions; he referees papers and applications in his field of radio astronomy and works with policy makers on future choices.

He is emeritus professor of astronomy at both the University of Utrecht and the University of Leiden, keeps in touch with most of his thirty or so PhD students and is an active member of the IAU in a number of commissions and divisions. Two of his slogans: The world needs more astronomers, and Variety is the spice of life.

Professor van der Laan’s full biography can be read here.

A detailed CV is below.

Prof. Harry van der Laan

Born in Blijham, the Netherlands, in 1936; Dutch nationality


  • D.Phil in Astronomy and Astrophysics, Cambridge University, 1963
  • Bachelor of Science, University of Western Ontario,1960

Professional Activities:

  • 1964–1967: Associate professor of Astronomy, University of Western Ontario, Canada.
  • 1965–1967: Visiting Research Scientist at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO); conceived of YERAC with Emil Blum (Meudon, Paris) and Peter Mezger (MPIfRA, Bonn) .
  • 1967: Appointed scientific associate, at Leiden Observatory, University of Leiden. Promoted to senior scientific associate in December.
  • 1969: Designated as Executive Board member/CEO of the NFRA with the Dwingeloo and Westerbork Radio Observatories by the  National Organization for Pure Research (ZWO) until September 1987.
  • 1967–1987: Professor, and Scientific Director during twelve of those years , Leiden Observatory, Leiden University, the Netherlands.
  • 1970: Appointed full Professor of Radio Astronomy at Leiden University.
  • 1971: Inaugural Lecture (Oratie) Leiden University ‘Winds of Change’.
  • 1974–75: Visiting scientist at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, division of Natural Sciences.
  • 1976: President of IAU Commission 40 till General Assembly in Montreal, 1979.
  • 1977: Elected George Darwin Lecturer by the Royal Astronomical Society.
  • 1979: Designer/editor of twelve one hour programmes for national television called Sterrenstelsels (Galaxies).
  • 1988–1992: Director General of ESO
  • 1988: Founding member of the Academia Europaea.
  • 1993: Acceptance of an adjunct professorship in astronomy at Utrecht University.
  • 1994: Appointed Chairman of the Board of the newly formed NL Foundation for Geology, Oceanography and Atmospheric Sciences GOA.
  • 1996: Founding of Van der Laan’s consulting firm PROFAST Professorial Advice for Science and Technology
  • 2001: Leiden University: Exaugural Lecture “Scholars, Concepts and Discoveries”

Research: radio astronomy,
authored and co-authored over 100 refereed papers and books.


  • Member, Stichting Radiostraling van Zon en Melkweg (SRZM), 1969
  • Member, Academia Europaea, 1988
  • Member, Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences (KNAW), 1979
  • Member, International Astronomical Union

Other Affiliations and Honours:

  • Asteroid 2823 designated van der Laan, International Astronomical Union
  • Royal appointment to Commander in the Order of the Netherlands LION in 2001