Friday, September 25, 2009

September 25: Ole Rømer

Ole Christensen Rømer
September 25, 1644 – September 19, 1710

Ole Rømer was a Danish astronomer who in 1676 made the first quantitative measurements of the speed of light.

Ole Rømer went to the University of Copenhagen in 1662, at which his mentor was Rasmus Bartholin. Rømer was given every opportunity to learn mathematics and astronomy using Tycho Brahe's astronomical observations, as Bartholin had been given the task of preparing them for publication.

After studies in Copenhagen, Rømer joined the observatory of Uraniborg on the island of Hven, near Copenhagen, in 1671. Over a period of several months, Jean Picard and Rømer observed about 140 eclipses of Jupiter's moon Io, while in Paris Giovanni Domenico Cassini observed the same eclipses. By comparing the times of the eclipses, the difference in longitude of Paris to Uranienborg was calculated.

Cassini had observed the moons of Jupiter between 1666 and 1668, and discovered discrepancies in his measurements that, at first, he attributed to light having a finite speed. In 1672 Rømer went to Paris and continued observing the satellites of Jupiter as Cassini's assistant. Rømer added his own observations to Cassini's and observed that times between eclipses (particularly those of Io) got shorter as Earth approached Jupiter, and longer as Earth moved farther away. Cassini published a short paper in August 1675 where he states: This second inequality appears to be due to light taking some time to reach us from the satellite; light seems to take about ten to eleven minutes to cross a distance equal to the half-diameter of the terrestrial orbit.

Oddly, Cassini seems to have abandoned this reasoning, which Rømer adopted and set about buttressing in an irrefutable manner, using a selected number of observations performed by Picard and himself between 1671 and 1677. Rømer presented his results to the French Academy of Sciences, and it was summarised soon after by an anonymous reporter in a short paper, Démonstration touchant le mouvement de la lumière trouvé par M. Roemer de l'Académie des sciences, published 7 December 1676 in the Journal des sçavans. Unfortunately the paper bears the stamp of the reporter failing to understand Rømer's presentation, and as the reporter resorted to cryptic phrasings to hide his lack of understanding, he obfuscated Rømer's reasoning in the process. Unfortunately Rømer himself never published his results.

Rømer never gave a value for the speed of light. However, many others calculated a speed from his data, the first being Christiaan Huygens; after corresponding with Rømer and eliciting more data.

Rømer's view that the velocity of light was finite was not fully accepted until measurements of the so-called aberration of light were made by James Bradley in 1727.

In 1809, again making use of observations of Io, but this time with the benefit of more than a century of increasingly precise observations, the astronomer Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre reported the time for light to travel from the Sun to the Earth as 8 minutes and 12 seconds. Depending on the value assumed for the astronomical unit, this yields the speed of light as just a little more than 300,000 kilometres per second.

A plaque at the Observatory of Paris, where the Danish astronomer happened to be working, commemorates what was, in effect, the first measurement of a universal quantity made on this planet.

The Lunar crater Römer is named in his honor.

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