Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel (German: [ˈbɛsəl]; 22 July 1784 – 17 March 1846) was a Germanastronomer, mathematician, physicist and geodesist. He was the first astronomer who determined reliable values for the distance from the sun to another star by the method of parallax. A special type of mathematical functions were named Bessel functions after Bessel's death, though they had originally been discovered by Daniel Bernoulli and then generalised by Bessel.
Bessel was born in Minden, Westphalia, administrative center of Minden-Ravensberg, as second son of a civil servant. He was born into a large family in Germany. At the age of 14 Bessel was apprenticed to the import-export concern Kulenkamp at Bremen. The business's reliance on cargo ships led him to turn his mathematical skills to problems in navigation. This in turn led to an interest in astronomy as a way of determining longitude.
Bessel married Johanna, the daughter of the chemist and pharmacist Karl Gottfried Hagen who was the uncle of the physician and biologist Hermann August Hagen and the hydraulic engineer Gotthilf Hagen, the latter also Bessel's student and assistant from 1816 to 1818. The physicist Franz Ernst Neumann, Bessel's close companion and colleague, was married to Johanna Hagen's sister Florentine. Neumann introduced Bessel's exacting methods of measurement and data reduction into his mathematico-physical seminar, which he co-directed with Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi at Königsberg. These exacting methods had a lasting impact upon the work of Neumann's students and upon the Prussian conception of precision in measurement.
Bessel had two sons and three daughters. His eldest daughter, Marie, married Georg Adolf Erman, member of the scholar family Erman. One of their sons was the renowned EgyptologistAdolf Erman.
While the observatory was still in construction Bessel elaborated the Fundamenta Astronomiae based on Bradley's observations. As a preliminary result he produced tables of atmospheric refraction that won him the Lalande Prize from the French Academy of Sciences in 1811. The Königsberg Observatory began operation in 1813.
With this work done, Bessel was able to achieve the feat for which he is best remembered today: he is credited with being the first to use parallax in calculating the distance to a star. Astronomers had believed for some time that parallax would provide the first accurate measurement of interstellar distances—in fact, in the 1830s there was a fierce competition between astronomers to be the first to measure a stellar parallax accurately. In 1838 Bessel won the race, announcing that 61 Cygni had a parallax of 0.314 arcseconds; which, given the diameter of the Earth's orbit, indicated that the star is 10.3 ly away. Given the current measurement of 11.4 ly, Bessel's figure had an error of 9.6%. Nearly at the same time Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Struve and Thomas Henderson measured the parallaxes of Vega and Alpha Centauri.
As well as helping determine the parallax of 61 Cygni, Bessel's precise measurements using a new meridian circle from Adolf Repsold allowed him to notice deviations in the motions of Sirius and Procyon, which he deduced must be caused by the gravitational attraction of unseen companions.
His announcement of Sirius's "dark companion" in 1844 was the first correct claim of a previously unobserved companion by positional measurement, and eventually led to the discovery of Sirius B.
Bessel was the first scientist who realized the effect later called personal equation, that several simultaneously observing persons determine slightly different values, especially recording the transition time of stars.
In 1824, Bessel developed a new method for calculation the circumstances of eclipses using the so-called Besselian elements. His method simplified the calculation to such an extent, without sacrificing accuracy, that it is still in use today.
In the second decade of the 19th century while studying the dynamics of 'many-body' gravitational systems, Bessel developed what are now known as Bessel functions. Critical for the solution of certain differential equations, these functions are used throughout both classical and quantum physics.
Bessel is responsible for the correction to the formula for the sample variance estimator named in his honour. This is the use of the factor n − 1 in the denominator of the formula, rather than just n. This occurs when the sample mean rather than the population mean is used to centre the data and since the sample mean is a linear combination of the data the residual to the sample mean overcounts the number of degrees of freedom by the number of constraint equations — in this case one. (Also see Bessel's correction).
Fundamenta Astronomiae pro anno MDCCLV deducta ex observationibus viri incomparabilis James Bradley in specula astronomica Grenovicensi, per annos 1750–1762 institutis, Königsberg, 1818
Tabulae regiomontanae reductionum observationum astronomicarum ab anno 1750 usque ad annum 1850 computatæ, Königsberg, 1830
Untersuchungen über die scheinbare und wahre Bahn des im Jahre 1807 erschienenen grossen Kometen. [Investigations on the apparent and the real orbit of the great comet of 1807], Königsberg, 1810
Untersuchung der Größe und des Einflusses des Vorrückens der Nachtgleichen. [Investigations on precession], Berlin, 1815
Untersuchungen über die Länge des einfachen Secundenpendels. [Investigations on the length of the seconds pendulum], Berlin, 1828
Versuche über die Kraft mit welcher die Erde Körper von verschiedener Beschaffenheit anzieht. [Experiments on the force with which the earth attracts things of different matter], Berlin, 1832
Gradmessung in Ostpreußen und ihre Verbindung mit Preußischen und Russischen Dreiecksketten. [The East Prussian Survey and its connection with the Prussian and Russian networks], Berlin, 1838
Darstellung der Untersuchungen und Maaßregeln, welche, in 1835 bis 1838, durch die Einheit des Preußischen Längenmaaßes veranlaßt worden sind. [Description of the investigations and rules arranged in 1835 to 1838 for the standardization of the prussian unit of length], Berlin, 1839
Astronomische Beobachtungen auf der Königlichen Universitäts-Sternwarte zu Königsberg. [Astronomical Investigations (XXI Volumes)], Königsberg, 1815–1844
Bessel, F. W. (1844b). "Ueber Veränderlichkeit der eigenen Bewegungen der Fixsterne (Fortsetzung)" [On Variations of the proper motions of the fixed stars (continued)]. Astronomische Nachrichten (in German). 22 (515): 169–184. Bibcode:1844AN.....22..169B. doi:10.1002/asna.18450221202.
Hoffmann, Christoph (2007). "Constant differences: Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel, the concept of the observer in early nineteenth-century practical astronomy and the history of the personal equation". British Journal for the History of Science. 40 (3): 333–365. doi:10.1017/s0007087407009478.
^Viik, T. (2006). F.W. Bessel and Geodesy(PDF). Struve Geodetic Arc 2006 International Conference: The Struve Arc and Extensions in Space and Time. August 13–15, 2006. Haparanda and Pajala, Sweden: Lantmäteriet, Gävle, Sweden, 2006. pp. 53–63.
^Bessel, F. W. (1837). "Bestimmung der Axen des elliptischen Rotationssphäroids, welches den vorhandenen Messungen von Meridianbögen der Erde am meisten entspricht" [Determination of the axes of ellipsoid that fits best to the existing measurements of meridian arcs]. Astronomische Nachrichten (in German). 14 (333): 333–346. Bibcode:1837AN.....14..333B. doi:10.1002/asna.18370142301.
^Bessel, F. W. (1841). "Ueber einen Fehler in der Berechnung der französischen Gradmessung und seinen Einfluß auf die Bestimmung der Figur der Erde" [Concerning an error in the calculation of the French survey and its influence on the determination of the figure of the Earth]. Astronomische Nachrichten (in German). 19 (438): 97–116. Bibcode:1841AN.....19...97B. doi:10.1002/asna.18420190702.
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