Astronomy Bio...Theodore von Oppolzer

Jay Bitterman

Theodore Egon Ritter von Oppolzer was born in Prague on October 26, 1841. At an early age he had a precocious ability with mathematics. From 1851 to 1895 he was at the top of his class at the Piaristen Gymnasium in Vienna. To satisfy his father's wishes he studied medicine and in 1865 he got his degree as a doctor. He devoted much his spare time to making astronomical observations. He became Lecturer in Astronomy at the University of Vienna in 1866 and in 1870 he was promoted to Associate Professor. In 1873 he was made Director of the Austrian Geodetic Survey and became Professor of Geodesy and Astronomy at Vienna in 1875. Besides his research and teaching, Oppolzer was active in various European scientific societies. In 1886 he became the president of the International Geodetic Association.

Because Oppolzer had his own observatory he was able to make accurate and extensive studies of the behavior of asteroids and comets. The discovery of asteroids by Giuseppi Piazzi in 1801 sparked interest in the astronomical community to investigate the details of their orbits. Oppolzer systematically searched by observing and calculating in order to confirm and amend, if necessary, the commonly accepted orbits of these bodies. His technique for calculating orbits was both novel and original for finding inaccuracies. A clear description of the subject was addressed in his two-volume work (1870-1880).

He became interested in eclipses after taking part in an 1868 expedition to study the total eclipse of the Sun. He commenced to calculate the length of time and path of every eclipse of the Sun and that of the Moon for as many years as possible. In 1887 his "Canon der Finsternisse" was published posthumously. It included the years of 1207 BC to 2163 AD, an astonishing total of 3,370 years.

His thoroughness and the accuracy of his mathematical procedures greatly contributed to astronomy. Oppolzer died in Vienna on December 26, 1886.