What does the Friedrich Bessel Biography have to do with Halley’s Comet?

The Friedrich Bessel Biography tells of the attention from Heinrich Olbers, a major German astronomer at the time, to Bessel work with Halley’s Comet.

Life and Times

Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel, the son of a civil servant, was born on July 22, 1784 in Minden, Westphalia, now known as Germany. He attended the Gymnasium in Minden for four years but did poorly. He left school at the age of 14 and became an apprentice to the commercial firm of Kulenkamp an import export firm in Bremen. He developed an interest in the countries the firm dealt with that in the evenings Bessel would study geography. His interest in navigation and finding ships at sea lead Friedrich Bessel to astronomy according to the Friedrich Bessel Biography.

In 1804 Friedrich Bessel wrote a paper on Halley’s Comet, determining the orbit using information from observations of Thomas Harriot. Bessel then sent his paper to Olbers. Olbers encouraged Bessel to continue further with his work. The final paper was published at the urgings of Olbers.

This opened the world of astronomy to Bessel and also led to his appointment as director of the Konigsberg Observatory and professor of astronomy at the Albertus University in Konigsberg. He would hold these positions the rest of his life.

In 1812 Bessel married Johanna Hagen and they had one son, Wilhelm, and three daughters, Marie, Elisabeth and Johanna.

According to the Friedrich Bessel Biography, Bessel during his time at the Observatory pinpointed the positions of over 50,000 starts. The thing he is best remembered for is being the first to determine the distance of a star, 61 Cygni, from Earth. Friedrich precise measurements allowed him to notice the orbital variations of Sirius and Procyon. He figured out this had to be caused by a “dark companion”. He made his announcement in 1844, and was the first correct claim of the “dark companion” which led to the eventual discovery of Sirius B.

After the death of his son, Wilhelm in 1840, Friedrich Bessel’s health began to deteriorate. On March 17, 1846 Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel died of cancer in Konigsberg, Prussia, now known as Kaliningrad, Russia.

Honors and Awards

  • Crater Bessel - Moon
  • 1552 Bessel – asteroid
  • LaLande Prize from the Institut de France - 1812
  • Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh – 1823
  • Fellow of the Royal Society – 1825
  • Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society - 1840

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