Milutin Milanković was a polymath – a civil engineer, professor of applied mathematics, climatologist, and populizer of science who produced a robust mathematical explanation of recurring ice ages and climate change on our planet.
He demonstrated how the earth’s orbital cycles result in ongoing changes to the amount of energy our planet receives from the sun, leading to climate change. These cycles of astronomy-related climate changes on Earth are now known as Milankovitch cycles.
Milanković also produced the first scientifically supportable climate predictions for conditions on the solar system’s other rocky planets.
Beginnings and Education
Milutin Milanković was born along with his twin sister on May 28, 1879, in the village of Dalj, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The village is now in Croatia.
Milutin’s father, Milan, was a businessman and local politician. His mother was Jelisaveta, nee Muačević. The family was prosperous and featured several prominent citizens, including a grandfather who was a published philosopher, an uncle who was head of the Serbian Army, and a design engineer.
As a result of his frequent poor health, Milutin was often educated at home by his parents, relatives, and family friends. His father died when Milutin was eight, and he was raised by his mother, grandmother, and uncle.
Milutin Milanković completed secondary school in 1896, age 17, then studied Civil Engineering at the Vienna University of Technology. He graduated with high distinction in 1902, age 23.
After a year’s compulsory service in the army, Milanković returned to Vienna’s University of Technology as a graduate student. His thesis on pressure curves, an important topic in construction engineering, led to him being awarded a PhD in December 1904, age 25.
Engineer, Professor, and Climatologist
After getting his PhD, Milanković worked as a highly successful civil engineer. His reputation and fees grew rapidly. In the fall of 1909, he accepted the post of Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Belgrade. In this role he divided his time between academia and civil engineering consultancy work.
In 1912, Milanković began exploring the relationship between astronomy and our planet’s climate. He considered the effect of insolation (the total energy reaching the earth from the sun) on climate, relating insolation to our planet’s different climatic zones. In 1914, he published a paper considering astronomical effects on ice ages.
War and More Climate Theory
On July 28, World War 1 began. Milanković, a Serbian, was arrested and interned by the Austro-Hungarian authorities.
His wife Kristina traveled to Vienna’s University of Technology where she explained Milanković’s plight to his old professor and friend Emanuel Czuber. Czuber had considerable influence and he obtained Milanković’s release from the internment camp. Milanković was given permission to work in Budapest, which he did for almost the whole four years of the war.
In this time, he calculated the effects of the sun’s energy on the solar system’s planets and their atmospheres.
In 1916, he published his paper Investigation of the climate of the planet Mars.
In 1920, Milanković published Mathematical Theory of Thermal Phenomena Caused by Solar Radiation. This was his first paper looking at the influence of astronomical cycles on climate. Of the groundbreaking work of Joseph Adhémar and James Croll in this field, he wrote:
Milanković’s paper featured a solar radiation curve. The curve was used by Alfred Wegener and Wladimir Köppen in their 1924 book The Climates of the Geological Past, hence Milanković’s name and work became more widely known.
Over the years, Milanković continued to develop and refine his climate theories, culminating in his masterpiece, Canon of Insolation of the Earth and Its Application to the Problem of the Ice Ages in 1941. The book explained in detail the cycles of climate change our planet has seen. Of his great work, he wrote:
Family & The EndIn June 1914, Milanković married Kristina Topuzović. They had one son, Vasko, born in 1915.
In 1919, with World War 1 over, Milanković returned to Belgrade with his family. He spent the rest of his life there.
In 1941, Nazi Germany invaded Yugoslavia, occupying Belgrade. Milanković retreated to his home during the occupation and concentrated on writing. He resumed his work as a university professor when the war was over, retiring from his professorship in 1955, age 76.
Milutin Milanković died age 79 on December 12, 1958 in Belgrade. He was buried at the New Cemetery in Belgrade.
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