July 22nd in German History: The Birth of Friedrich Bessel

Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel (1839 painting).jpg
Friederich Bessel.

As I have said before, Germany has produced a truly exceptional number of important astronomers, mathematicians, physicists, and chemists. One member of that legion of giants was Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel, a mathematician, astronomer, physicist, and geodesist. His contributions to math and astronomy were significant, and further show the importance of Germany in the development of modern science.

Friedrich was born on July 22nd, 1784, in the city of Minden. He developed a mathematical aptitude while apprenticed in a shipping company, and there became interested in astronomy as it could be used to determine longitude for trade ships. He was noticed by astronomers after he produced refined calculations for the orbit of Haley’s comet, and apprenticed under several prominent astronomers. In 1810 he was appointed the director of the Konigsberg observatory. He lacked formal astronomical education, and so in 1811 was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Gottingen after Karl Friedrich Gauss recommended it. That year, he produced tables of atmospheric refraction for which he won the Lalande Prize. He is most famous for his use of the stellar parallax to calculate the distance between earth and 61 Cygni; he was the first to use this method; his measurements were only 9.6% off. He made several other contributions, including the prediction of the existence of Sirius B based off of the motions of visible bodies, here again he was the first to do this, and the development of Bessel functions. While making these contributions, he married Johanna, daughter of chemist Karl Hagen, and developed friendships with other prominent scientists. He continued to work throughout his adult life, and won numerous awards for it. He died on March 17th, 1846, of retriponeal fibrosis.

Friedrich Bessel reminds us that even those whose names have been relegated to advanced textbooks and the minds of university professors are important. They are, perhaps, more important than many that our society chooses to idolize. While any attempt to fundamentally change who our society cares about is not only futile but also largely unjustified, I do, at least, hope that we will devote at least some attention to those who pushed forward the breadth of human knowledge.

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