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Heinrich Olbers

1758 - 1840

Heinrich Olbers, 1758 - 1840, German astronomer

Heinrich Olbers was a German physician and passionate astronomer, whose name is immortalised as a paradox which challenged the best minds in science for a century: why is the night sky dark?

  • Nationality
  • German

  • Subject
  • Astronomy

  • Distinctions
  • Elected to the Leopoldina (Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina – Nationale Akademie der Wissenschaften: German Academy of Nature Researchers - National Science Academy), 1797.

    Olbers has a number of memorials around Germany, including a statue in Bremen, and memorial plaques in Bremen and Göttingen.

    He received several civilian awards, including two Ritterkreuz (Knight Order).

    The Olbers-Gesellschaft is an astronomical association, founded in 1920 in Bremen.

    There is a crater on the Moon, and an asteroid (Olbersia), named in his honour.

    Streets, schools and other places are named in his honour around Germany.

  • Publications
  • Abhandlung über die leichteste und bequemste Methode, die Bahn eines Cometen zu berechnen, (Treatise on the easiest and most convenient way to calculate the path of a comet) 1797. This method was applied throughout the 19th century, and is still usable today.

    Ueber die Gefahren, die unsere Erde von den Cometen leiden könnte (Concerning the dangers our Earth could suffer from comets), 1810.

    His correspondence with contemporary astronomers has been published, including with Carl Friedrich Gauss.

  • Theories
  • Famous for Olbers' Paradox (1823), asking the question why in a static, infinite universe, is the sky at night dark?

    Olbers developed a method to calculate the path of heavenly bodies.

  • Experiments/Discoveries
  • He discovered the minor planets Pallas (1802) and Vesta (1807) (located between Mars and Jupiter), and 6 comets, at the Sternwarte Lilienthal (Lilienthal Observatory), where the Astronomische Gesellschaft (Astronomical Society) was founded in 1800.

Olbers was a medical doctor by profession, but had developed a fascination for astronomy as a small child. He regularly could only sleep 4 hours per night, giving him the time to dedicate to the night sky. An anecdote recounts how he calculated the path of a comet he could observe through the window, during the consultation of a patient!

He became famous, and was invited abroad, including to Paris, where he met Napoleon Bonaparte. He wrote prolifically, including letters to fellow astronomers, providing a valuable insight to the thinking and practice of astronomy of the time.

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