2009 is the international year of astronomy and as a part of that historical observatories in Germany have exhibitions this week. I pass our local observatory every day which was recently renovated to be a conference centre and house a graduate school. [The one event I attended in there in spring was very interesting and highlighted that they did a great job renovating but chose to ignore that great acoustics would help a conference facility.]
On the occasion of this special week they created a small exhibition about the history of the observatory and its relation to Gauß - who remains one of the city’s heros. A special lecture on the history was given by a retired astronomy professor today. It was a very interesting lecture (all talking, no slides) highlighting that astronomy, i.e. studying and mapping the skies, used to be strictly joined to subjects like mapmaking and study of the earth’s surface a few centuries ago. With mapmaking being essential for politics, war and other such pastimes, astronomy ended up in a position much more recognised than the ‘ivory tower’ science it may be perceived as today. Those in power didn’t see observatories as a way to gain maps of their countries, rather than fun for science nitwits. Hence, they were at least interested in building some.
As a consequence there was a plan to build an observatory in Göttingen even before Gauß - so it wasn’t ‘his’ observatory as I was told before. On the other hand he worked there for decades on many important things, so it became ‘his’ observatory over time. Despite making many measurements and baffling amounts of computations, it was Gauß’ aim to understand the bigger scheme behind the principles discovered.
Somewhat strangely, he got distracted from astronomy to map making and spent a decade of his life triangulating the kingdom of Hannover (then belonging to England) resulting in the famous map. While he developed cool tools like the heliotrope for that, his contemporary physicists and mathematicians saw his talent wasted in such menial tasks. A statement he apparently didn’t agree to.
Later on Gauß and his colleague Weber created what’s said to be the first electric telegraph. With a morse-style code they could transfer messages across town, without the need for good weather or opening the window. Gauß is said to have noted that he can imagine that once the technology has matured this could be used to transfer messages for several miles (I’m not sure about this, but from some other conversion I saw ‘miles’ seemed to be 10km or so back then). While he didn’t predict people twittering on the subway, this seems reasonably visionary for the web -5.0 era.
There were plenty of other discoveries made and tools discovered in Göttingen. One of Gauß’ colleagues, for example, invented a very precise way to determine your longitude on sea, winning a part of the prize for the longitude challenge that was big at the time. In fact, the time dependence of these things is amazing. Today people carry tiny GPS toys in their pockets which easily outdo the out tools. But that literally requires modern rocket science (and general relativity), compared to which the old telescopes and quadrants are amazingly simple tools. No black magic going on there. The skill consisted of knowing how to use them and knowing how to have the optical components made to a great precision.
As a final treat, one of the exhibits showed the odd black hat which Gauß is wearing on a number of paintings. Cool!
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