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Famous Astronomers: Laplace & Olbers

Who is responsible for discovering the asteroids called Vesta and Pallas? What French mathematician and astronomer is tied to Sir Isaac Newton as a vital contributor to both the world of science and math? These two prominent players in the history of astronomical discovery and achievement are profiled in this installment of “Famous Astronomers”¦”

Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827)

This French mathematician and astronomer contributed research and work that became rather significant in the development of mathematical astronomy. A publication that spanned five volumes was produced from his efforts , Mecanique Celeste (which translates into Celestial Mechanics). This would become the same work that Isaac Newton used in relation to his calculus problems.

Laplace is behind “Laplace’s equation,” which became rather key in the world of science , touching upon electromagnetism, astronomy, and fluid dynamics. He invented the Laplace transform, which found a useful position in several branches of mathematical physics. Laplace also became prominent in the exploration of black holes, becoming one of the first scientists to calculate its existence. His work also expanded to reach the ins and outs of gravitational collapse.

Throughout history, Laplace gained quite the reputation and is recognized as one of the greats of all time. Some circles dubbed him the “French Newton” or the “Newton of France.” In later years, Laplace became a count of the First French Empire in 1806, as well as gained the title of marquis in 1817 after the Bourbon Restoration, which followed the removal of Napoleon I of France in 1814.

Heinrich Olbers (1758-1840)

The man who invented the first successful technique for calculating the orbit of comets is a German astronomer, physicist, and doctor by the name of Heinrich Olbers. Under his belt, he is also attributed with the discovery of a handful of comets, such as the comet of 1815, which was named after him. He also uncovered the existence of Pallas and Vesta (asteroids) and often famously questioned why is the night sky so dark. 

With his birthplace in Arbergen, Olbers , studied to become a physician at Gottingen. Upon graduating in 1780, he started to practice medicine in Bremen, Germany. When the sun set, this became his time to make observations in the sky, transforming the upper part of his residence into an observatory. This is when he made breakthroughs in calculating cometary orbits.

In 1802, Olbers discovered and named the asteroid Pallas. In another five years, the asteroid Vesta was found, which he permitted Carl Friedrich Gauss (a historically influential mathematician) to name. Over time, Olbers would also formulate many different theories centered on the asteroid belt, which most of the scientific community does not embrace. It was in 1815 that Olbers discovered the periodic comet that would highlight his name , 13P/Olbers. Over the length of his career, Olbers earned numerous distinctions, including the naming of the asteroid 1002 Olbersia; Olbers crater on the Moon, as well as a dark feature found on the surface of Vesta.