Wilhelm Olbers

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pages: 492 words: 149,259

Big Bang by Simon Singh

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Albert Einstein, Albert Michelson, All science is either physics or stamp collecting, Andrew Wiles, anthropic principle, Arthur Eddington, Astronomia nova, Brownian motion, carbon-based life, Cepheid variable, Chance favours the prepared mind, Commentariolus, Copley Medal, cosmic abundance, cosmic microwave background, cosmological constant, cosmological principle, dark matter, Dava Sobel, Defenestration of Prague, discovery of penicillin, Dmitri Mendeleev, Edmond Halley, Edward Charles Pickering, Eratosthenes, Ernest Rutherford, Erwin Freundlich, Fellow of the Royal Society, fudge factor, Hans Lippershey, Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis, Harvard Computers: women astronomers, Henri Poincaré, horn antenna, if you see hoof prints, think horses—not zebras, Index librorum prohibitorum, invention of the telescope, Isaac Newton, John von Neumann, Karl Jansky, Louis Daguerre, Louis Pasteur, luminiferous ether, Magellanic Cloud, Murray Gell-Mann, music of the spheres, Olbers’ paradox, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, Paul Erdős, retrograde motion, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman, scientific mainstream, Simon Singh, Solar eclipse in 1919, Stephen Hawking, the scientific method, Thomas Kuhn: the structure of scientific revolutions, unbiased observer, V2 rocket, Wilhelm Olbers, William of Occam

To put this into perspective, if the universe were miniaturised so that our Solar System, everything from the Sun to the outer reaches of Pluto’s orbit, could be squeezed inside a house, then our neighbouring stars would still be dozens of kilometres away. It became clear that our Milky Way is exceedingly thinly populated. Bessel’s contemporaries praised his measurement. The German physician and astronomer Wilhelm Olbers said that it ‘put our ideas about the universe for the first time on a sound basis’. Similarly, John Herschel, William Herschel’s son and himself an acclaimed astronomer, called the result ‘the greatest and most glorious triumph which practical astronomy has ever witnessed’. Not only did astronomers now know the distance to 61 Cygni, but they could also estimate the size of the Milky Way. By comparing the brightness of 61 Cygni to that of Sirius, it was possible to do a ballpark conversion of William Herschel’s siriometer unit into light years, whereupon astronomers estimated that the Milky Way was 10,000 light years across and 1,000 light years thick.

But the Steady State model and its Quasi-Steady State reincarnation were barely surviving. Any unbiased observer could see that they were on the brink of extinction, whereas the Big Bang model was not only surviving, but thriving. The universe simply made more sense in the context of the Big Bang model. For example, in 1823, when scientists assumed that the universe was infinite and eternal, the German astronomer Wilhelm Olbers wondered why the night sky was not ablaze with starlight. He reasoned that an infinite universe would contain an infinite number of stars, and if the universe was infinitely old then this would have allowed an infinite amount of time for the starlight to have reached us. Hence, our night sky ought to be flooded with an infinite amount of light from all these stars. The obvious lack of this infinite light from space is known as Olbers’ paradox.


pages: 208 words: 70,860

Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics by Jim Al-Khalili

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Albert Einstein, Albert Michelson, anthropic principle, Arthur Eddington, butterfly effect, clockwork universe, complexity theory, dark matter, Edmond Halley, Edward Lorenz: Chaos theory, Ernest Rutherford, Henri Poincaré, invention of the telescope, Isaac Newton, luminiferous ether, Magellanic Cloud, Olbers’ paradox, Schrödinger's Cat, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, The Present Situation in Quantum Mechanics, Wilhelm Olbers

And, as we will see, the reason why not turns out to be one of the most profound truths about our universe that we have ever discovered. But in order to resolve the paradox satisfactorily, we must first see how it evolved through history. An Infinity of Stars Given how long astronomers have been aware of this paradox, it is somewhat surprising that it was as recently as the 1950S that it was attributed to, and named after, Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers, a nineteenth-century physician and amateur astronomer from Bremen in Germany. In fact, few astronomers even seemed interested in it until then. In 1952 the great Anglo-Austrian cosmologist Hermann Bondi published an influential textbook in which the term “Olbers’ Paradox” was coined for the first time. But as we shall see, the attribution was misplaced, for Olbers was not the first to pose the problem, nor was his contribution to its resolution particularly original or enlightening.


pages: 654 words: 204,260

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

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Albert Einstein, Albert Michelson, Alfred Russel Wallace, All science is either physics or stamp collecting, Arthur Eddington, Barry Marshall: ulcers, Brownian motion, California gold rush, Cepheid variable, clean water, Copley Medal, cosmological constant, dark matter, Dava Sobel, David Attenborough, double helix, Drosophila, Edmond Halley, Ernest Rutherford, Fellow of the Royal Society, Harvard Computers: women astronomers, Isaac Newton, James Watt: steam engine, John Harrison: Longitude, Kevin Kelly, Kuiper Belt, Louis Pasteur, luminiferous ether, Magellanic Cloud, Menlo Park, Murray Gell-Mann, out of africa, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, supervolcano, Thomas Malthus, Wilhelm Olbers

Frustrated, Mendel retired from investigating heritability and spent the rest of his life growing outstanding vegetables and studying bees, mice, and sunspots, among much else. Eventually he was made abbot. Mendel's findings weren't quite as widely ignored as is sometimes suggested. His study received a glowing entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica—then a more leading record of scientific thought than now—and was cited repeatedly in an important paper by the German Wilhelm Olbers Focke. Indeed, it was because Mendel's ideas never entirely sank below the waterline of scientific thought that they were so easily recovered when the world was ready for them. Together, without realizing it, Darwin and Mendel laid the groundwork for all of life sciences in the twentieth century. Darwin saw that all living things are connected, that ultimately they “trace their ancestry to a single, common source,” while Mendel's work provided the mechanism to explain how that could happen.


pages: 661 words: 169,298

Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris

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Albert Einstein, Albert Michelson, Alfred Russel Wallace, anthropic principle, Arthur Eddington, Atahualpa, Cepheid variable, Chance favours the prepared mind, Commentariolus, cosmic abundance, cosmic microwave background, cosmological constant, cosmological principle, dark matter, delayed gratification, Edmond Halley, Eratosthenes, Ernest Rutherford, Gary Taubes, Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis, Harvard Computers: women astronomers, Henri Poincaré, invention of writing, Isaac Newton, John Harrison: Longitude, Karl Jansky, Lao Tzu, Louis Pasteur, Magellanic Cloud, mandelbrot fractal, Menlo Park, Murray Gell-Mann, music of the spheres, planetary scale, retrograde motion, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Searching for Interstellar Communications, Solar eclipse in 1919, Stephen Hawking, Thomas Kuhn: the structure of scientific revolutions, Thomas Malthus, Wilhelm Olbers

Hinton’s career was interrupted—and his subject cast into further ignominy—when he was convicted of bigamy for living out the free-love philosophy of his father, who liked to say that “Christ was the Savior of men, but I am the savior of women, and I don’t envy Him a bit!” Hinton fits dropped dead at a banquet of the Society of Philanthropic Inquiry in Washington, D.C., moments after delivering a toast in honor of femininity.35 *This disturbing puzzle, known today as Olbers’s paradox after the nineteenth-century German astronomer Wilhelm Olbers, was discovered independently by other astronomers, among them Halley, who lectured on it at a Royal Society meeting in 1721. Newton chaired that meeting, but for some reason never wrote about the paradox. The historian of science Michael Hoskin suggests that the old man was napping while Halley spoke.38 †Alternately, general relativity allows that the universe might be structured like a four-dimensional hyperbola, in which case it would be both infinite and unbounded.