name = Friedrich Bessel
image_width = 300px
caption = Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel
birth_date = birth date|1784|7|22|df=y
Minden, Minden-Ravensberg, now Germany
death_date = death date and age|df=yes|1846|3|17|1784|7|22
Königsberg, Prussia, now Kaliningrad, Russia
residence = Prussia
nationality = Prussian (German)
University of Berlin
alma_mater = Georg-August University
Carl Friedrich Gauss
Bessel functions Stellar parallax
Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society(1829 & 1841)
Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel (22 July 1784 – 17 March 1846) was a German
mathematician, astronomer, and systematizer of the Bessel functions (which were discovered by Daniel Bernoulli). He was a contemporary of Carl Gauss, also a mathematician and astronomer. The asteroid 1552 Besselwas named in his honour.
Bessel was born in
Mindenin Minden-Ravensberg, the son of a civil servant. At the age of 14 Bessel was apprenticed to the import-export concern Kulenkamp. He soon became the company's accountant. The business's reliance on cargo ships led him to turn his mathematical skills to problems in navigation. This in turn led to an interest in astronomy as a way of determining longitude.
Bessel came to the attention of a major figure of German astronomy at the time,
Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers, by producing a refinement on the orbital calculations for Halley's Comet. Within two years Bessel had left Kulenkamp and become an assistant at Lilienthal Observatory near Bremen. There he worked on James Bradley's stellar observations to produce precise positions for some 3,222 stars.
This work attracted considerable attention, and at the age of 26 Bessel was appointed director of the
Königsberg Observatoryby King Frederick William III of Prussia. There he published tables of atmospheric refractionbased on Bradley's observations, which won him the Lalande Prizefrom the Institut de France. Bessel was able to pin down the position of over 50,000 stars during his time at Königsberg.
With this work under his belt, Bessel was able to achieve the feat for which he is best remembered today: he is credited with being the first to use
parallaxin calculating the distanceto a star. Astronomers had believed for some time that parallax would provide the first accurate measurement of interstellar distances -- in fact, in the 1830s there was a fierce competition between astronomers to be the first to measure a stellar parallax accurately. In 1838 Bessel won the race, announcing that 61 Cygnihad a parallax of 0.314 arcseconds; which, given the diameter of the Earth's orbit, indicated that the star was about 3 parsecs away (more recent results in the article on 61 Cygni). He narrowly beat Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Struveand Thomas Henderson, who measured the parallaxes of Vegaand Alpha Centauriin the same year.
As well as helping determine the parallax of 61 Cygni, Bessel's precise measurements allowed him to notice deviations in the motions of
Siriusand Procyon, which he deduced must be caused by the gravitational attraction of unseen companions. His announcement of Sirius's "dark companion" in 1844 was the first correct claim of a previously unobserved companion by positional measurement, and eventually led to the discovery of Sirius B.
Despite lacking a university education, Bessel was a major figure in astronomy during his lifetime. He was elected a fellow of the
Royal Society, and the largest crater in the moon's Mare Serenitatiswas named after him.
Bessel won the
Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Societyin 1841. In 1846 he died in Königsberg of cancer.
title=Bessel, Friedrich Wilhelm
NAME= Bessel, Friedrich
DATE OF BIRTH= birth date|1784|7|22|mf=y
PLACE OF BIRTH=
Minden, Westphalia, now Germany
DATE OF DEATH= death date|1846|3|17|mf=y
PLACE OF DEATH=
Königsberg, Prussia, now Kaliningrad, Russia
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