Sunday, October 11, 2009

October 11: Heinrich Olbers

Heinrich Wilhelm Matthäus Olbers
October 11, 1758 – March 2, 1840

Heinrich Olbers was a German physician and astronomer.

Olbers was born in Arbergen, near Bremen, and studied to be a physician at Göttingen. After his graduation in 1780, he began practicing medicine in Bremen, Germany. At night he dedicated his time to astronomical observation, making the upper story of his home into an observatory. He also devised the first satisfactory method of calculating cometary orbits.

On March 28, 1802, Olbers discovered and named the asteroid Pallas. Five years later, on March 29, 1807, he discovered the asteroid Vesta, which he allowed Carl Friedrich Gauss to name. As the word "asteroid" was not yet coined, the literature of the time referred to these minor planets as planets in their own right. He proposed that the asteroid belt, where these objects lay, was the remnants of a planet that had been destroyed. The current view of most scientists is that tidal effects from the planet Jupiter disrupt the formation of planets in the asteroid belt.

On March 6, 1815, Olbers also discovered a periodic comet, now named after him (formally designated 13P/Olbers).

Olbers' paradox, described by him in 1823 (and then reformulated in 1826), states that the darkness of the night sky conflicts with the supposition of an infinite and eternal static universe.

In 1827, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

The crater Olbers on the Moon, the asteroid 1002 Olbersia and a 200-km-diameter dark albedo feature on Vesta's surface are all named in his honor.

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