Saturday, June 6, 2009

June 6: Regiomontanus

Johannes Müller von Königsberg
June 6, 1436 – July 6, 1476

Johannes Müller von Königsberg, known by his Latin pseudonym Regiomontanus, was an important German mathematician, astronomer and astrologer.

At eleven years of age, he became a student at the university in Leipzig, Saxony. Three years later he continued his studies at Alma Mater Rudolfina, the university in Vienna, Austria. There he became a pupil and friend of Georg von Peurbach. In 1457 he graduated with a degree of "magister artium" (Master of Arts) and held lectures in optics and ancient literature. He built astrolabes for Matthias Corvinus of Hungary and Cardinal Bessarion, and in 1465 a portable sundial for Pope Paul II. His work with Peurbach brought him to the writings of Nicholas of Cusa (Cusanus), who held a heliocentric view. Regiomontanus, however, remained a geocentrist after Ptolemy. Following Peurbach's death, he continued the translation of Ptolemy's Almagest which Peurbach had begun at the initiative of Basilios Bessarion. From 1461 to 1465 Regiomontanus lived and worked at Cardinal Bessarion's house in Rome. He wrote De Triangulis omnimodus (1464) and Epytoma in almagesti Ptolemei. De Triangulis (On Triangles) was one of the first textbooks presenting the current state of trigonometry and included lists of questions for review of individual chapters. In it he wrote:

"You who wish to study great and wonderful things, who wonder about the movement of the stars, must read these theorems about triangles. Knowing these ideas will open the door to all of astronomy and to certain geometric problems."

In the Epytoma he critiqued the translation, pointing out inaccuracies. Later Nicolaus Copernicus would refer to this book as an influence on his own work. In 1467 Regiomontanus left Rome to work at the court of Matthias Corvinus of Hungary. There he calculated extensive astronomical tables and built astronomical instruments.

In 1471 he moved to the Free City of Nuremberg, in Franconia, then one of the Empire's important seats of learning, publication, commerce and art. He associated with the humanist and merchant Bernhard Walther who sponsored the observatory and the printing press. Regiomontanus remains famous for having built at Nuremberg the first astronomical observatory in Germany. In 1472 he published the first printed astronomical textbook, the "Theoricae novae Planetarum" of his teacher Georg von Peurbach.

A prolific author, Regiomontanus was internationally famous in his lifetime. Despite having completed only a quarter of what he had intended to write, he left a substantial body of work. Nicolaus Copernicus' teacher, Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara, referred to Regiomontanus as having been his own teacher.

The Lunar crater Regiomontanus is named in his honor.

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