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Piet van de Kamp (December 16, 1901, Kampen – May 18, 1995, Amsterdammarker), known as Peter van de Kamp in the United Statesmarker, was a Dutchmarker astronomer who lived most of his life in the United Statesmarker. He was professor of astronomy at Swarthmore Collegemarker and director of the college's Sproul Observatorymarker from 1937 until 1972. He specialized in astrometry, studying parallax and proper motions of stars. He came to public attention in the 1960s when he announced that Barnard's star had a planetary system based on observed "wobbles" in of its motion, but this now seems likely to have been spurious.


Van de Kamp studied at the University of Utrecht and started his professional career at the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute in Groningenmarker working with Pieter Johannes van Rhijn. In 1923 he left for the Leander McCormick Observatorymarker at the University of Virginiamarker for a year's residence supported by the Draper Fund of the National Academy of Sciencesmarker. There he assisted Samuel Alfred Mitchell with his extensive stellar parallax program and Harold Alden with the lengthy Boss star project.

The following year Van de Kamp went to the Lick Observatorymarker in Californiamarker as a Kellogg fellow. There he received his Ph.D. from the University of California in Astronomy in June 1925. The next year he also received a PhD from the University of Groningen. Van de Kamp returned to McCormick on October 1, 1925 to take up the position left vacant by Harold Alden, who had just taken up the directorship of the Yale University Observatory Southern Station in Johannesburgmarker, South Africa.

His work consisted of assisting with the parallax program and continuing the proper motion work that he and Alden had begun. Van de Kamp and Alexander N. Vyssotsky spent eight years measuring 18,000 proper motions. He did additional, smaller projects individually, including an investigation for general and selective absorption of light within the Galaxy.

The Barnard's Star affair

In the spring of 1937, Van de Kamp left McCormick Observatory to take over as director of Swarthmore Collegemarker's Sproul Observatorymarker. There he made astrometric measurements of Barnard's Star and in the 1960s reported a periodic "wobble" in its motion, apparently due to planetary companions. It was not until several decades had passed that a consensus had formed that this had been a spurious detection. In 1973 astronomers George Gatewood and Heinrich Eichhorn of the Allegheny Observatorymarker using data obtained with improved equipment on the 30-inch Thaw Refractor telescope did not detect any planets but instead detected a change in the color-dependent image scale of the images obtained from the 24-inch refractor telescope at the Sproul Observatorymarker used by Van de Kamp in his study. Astronomer John L. Hershey found that this anomaly apparently occurred after each time the objective lens was removed, cleaned, and replaced. Hundreds more stars showed "wobbles" like Barnard's Star's when photographs before and after cleaning were compared - a virtual impossibility.

Van de Kamp never admitted that his claim was in error and continued to publish papers about a planetary system around Barnard's Star into the 1980's. Wulff Heintz, Van de Kamp's successor at Swarthmore and an expert on double stars, questioned his findings and began publishing criticisms from 1976 onwards; the two are reported to have become estranged because of this.

From the 1940's on Van de Kamp and his staff made similar claims of planetary systems around the nearby stars Lalande 21185, 61 Cygni, and many others, based on the same flawed photographic plates. All of these claims have been refuted.

Throughout his life Van de Kamp was a strong promoter of the idea that planetary systems are common. With the recent discoveries of numerous planetary systems, this idea, at least, is being gradually proven correct.


Van de Kamp was a talented musician, playing piano, viola, and violin, only forgoing a musical career in his youth because he considered this more difficult to achieve than a career in astronomy. He helped to organize an orchestra in Charlottesvillemarker, which he conducted and included fellow astronomer Vyssotsky. He also composed music for orchestra as well as for piano. From 1944 to 1954 he was conductor of the Swarthmore College Symphony Orchestra. He combined his musical gifts with another hobby, movies, by playing silent films on Swarthmore campus and accompanying them on the piano. At Swarthmore Van de Kamp performed with Peter Schickele, a.k.a. P. D. Q. Bach, and made several films of Schickele's student performance, while on the occasion of his 70th birthday Schickele wrote a piano piece for him called The Easy Goin' P. v. d. K. Ever Lovin' Rag. Van de Kamp's said that his fondest musical memory was playing chamber music with Einstein, on the evening before the latter's commencement address at Swarthmore College in 1938.

Later life and Death

In 1972 he retired from Swarthmore and returned to the Netherlandsmarker, where he became Fulbright Professor to the University of Amsterdammarker. In 1982 he was awarded the Janssen Prize by the Société Astronomique de France. He died in suburban Amsterdammarker 18 May 1995, at the age of 93.

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