CMO/OAA Cahier #08
Carl Friedrich GAUSS and Halley’s Comet in 1835
This is a translation of the Japanese article published in the Heavens (Journal of the OAA) in December 1985.
ohann C. F. GAUSS (1777〜1855) also met Halley’s Comet after 50 of age, just as Ch HUYGENS did in his life. Halley’s comet in 1835 was also recorded in details by F. W. BESSEL, John F. W. HERSCHEL, and F. G. W. STRUVE who were all acquaintances of GAUSS. Especially BESSEL, younger by 7 years than GAUSS, was introduced at the end of 1804 by H. W. OLBERS (1758~1840)1) and was a disciple of GAUSS for 40 years. Among them OLBERS was the eldest. When OLBERS re-found Ceres on New Year day in 1802, GAUSS first asked OLBERS the result on 18 January, and then they formed friendship until the death of OLBERS.
Now a story of the observation of Halley’s comet by GAUSS:
What GAUSS wrote in a letter dated 11 November2) was interesting and excellent. He modestly began to excuse himself that he had not well observed the Comet, while on 12 October he met a better condition and was attracted by a phenomenon near the nucleus: He added a figure and stated that “from the bright core to the top of the parabolic tail a peculiar protrusion (originally: Auswuchs) was seen in a fan-shape somewhat declined 120 degrees: this protrusion is less bright than the nucleus but considerably brighter than the tail itself. The nucleus was thin yellowish, while the fan-shaped Auswuchs showed a tint of orange.” Unfortunately the observation was made only once because afterwards the weather turned out to be dismal at night. He expected the bright Auswuchs could be checked in the daytime, and tried several times but in vain because the atmosphere was not well clear.
OLBERS replied 3) on 2 December, and informed GAUSS of the fact that the beard (originally: Bart) GAUSS caught was already checked on 2 October by BESSEL: In fact BESSEL himself wrote a letter on 25 October to the Astronomische Nachrichten (hereafter abbreviated to A. N.) No.293 published on 28 November and reported about this blowing-out (originally: Ausströmung). OLBERS also alluded to the result obtained by Heinrich SCHWABE (1789〜1875)4): SCHWABE himself wrote a detailed report dated 13 November in A. N. No. 298; according to it he also caught the protrusion on 2 October. SCHWABE again observed that it became brighter on the morning of 7 October and sketched it. On 10 October, the very day GAUSS observed, it was fine at Königsberg where BESSEL observed and he chased about 9 hrs and out of his drawings published in A. N. Nos.300~302, four drawings which were made on the night (the weather at Dessau where SCHWABE’ station existed was bad). BESSEL’s reports of his observations and his considerations made on 2 October and 12 October are quite interesting but here we shall omit because the story digressed: Just we note he suggested in No.302 that the rocket phenomenon should have influenced the motion of the comet. OLBERS also expected the observation of STRUVE, but he did not observe on 2 October. However the protrusion on 12 October was also observed by STRUVE and reported as “Feuerstrahl” in A. N. No. 303.
A letter dated 24 September from BESSEL to GAUSS is cited in the complete works, but not yet it does not report about the “Bart”. Just it reports the observed positions which he already sent to H. C. SCHUMACHER (1780~1850) for the A. N: On 22 September, the seeing condition was good so that the “Spur” of the tail was clearly seen, although the nucleus was not yet checked while the coma looked concentrated.5)
Comet was first detected in Roma on 5 August 1835, but it seemed that
SCHUMACHER felt it dubious at the first time, so that he did not inform GAUSS
about it. It was therefore later on the newspaper that GAUSS was aware of the
coming back of Halley’s Comet. The data looked entangled however. GAUSS tried
to watch the Comet on 22 and 23 August whereas he failed,6)
and so he asked SCHUMACHER for further data and some advices.7)
According to the confession of GAUSS, the night gave a good sky until one hour at
midnight, and on 23 August he held on until 2 o’clock at night, but he was not
able to detect it. He made use of two telescopes, one being of Herschel, and
searched around 132 Tau. He abandoned perhaps because of the physical strength.
He again learned on the newspaper on 26 August that the Comet was re-discovered
28 August, SCHUMACHER wrote a letter to GAUSS, and informed him of several data
of several observers including Johann Franz ENCKE (1791-1865). SCHUMACHER also
observed on 24 and 25 August.8) Those days
there were coming several news on the Comet in succession to SCHUMACHER, as the
A. N. proves: Von LITTROW from
At those times GAUSS became to be able to catch Halley’s Comet without any response from SCHUMACHER, and in mid-September he wrote about the calculation of Otto RESENBERGER based on BESSEL’s observations. On 21 September, though there was the Moon light, checked the position of the Comet and communicated it to SCHUMACHER (dated 27 September).
The highlight of the Comet on this occasion must have been the jet which protruded from the nucleus. BESSEL looked back on the variation of the Ausströmung in a letter to GAUSS dated 28 March 1837 as the most amusing and interesting event and yearned after the day when he observed throughout the night (perhaps on 12 October).
After the greatest mathematician GAUSS at the first half of the 19 century, there succeeded several excellent and talented mathematicians such as WEIERSTRASS, RIEMANN, DEDEKIND, KRONECKER, KLEIN, and HILBELT in Germany, but the most prominent last person who was an astronomer as well as a mathematician at the same time was C F GAUSS himself: GAUSS said the mathematics was the Queen of sciences, but we can say now the arithmetic mathematics abdicated from the throne of Queen after GAUSS.
1) It was the Halley Comet in 1607 which made OLBERS connected with BESSEL. In 1804 BESSEL calculated the orbit of Halley’s comet based on the known observations in 1607 by HARRIOTT et al and sent it to OLBERS: OLBERS was quite astonished with the result, and sent it to the Monatliche Correspondenz, and then sent BESSEL to the Lilienthal Observatory organised by Johann SCHRŒTER.
2) ”C. F. Gauss-H. W. M. Olbers Briefwechsel. I”(Georg Olms Verlag, 1979) p627.
3) Op. cit. p629. OLBERS also wrote about his observations: He was around 77 of age, but on 22 September observed at his garden by the use of one foot Hoffmann chromatic, and on 18 and 22 October he climbed to the observatory and watched by 44x5 foot Dollond refractor. The nucleus was rather elliptic and the tail was only 10°~11° because of his old eye (though SCHUMACHER informed OLBERS of his result on 14 and 15 September to be 30°).
4) F. ARAGO (1786-1853) also suggested a rotation of nucleus and the distraction of the perihelion due to a perturbation.
5) “C. F. Gauss-F. W. Bessel Briefwechsel”(Georg Olms Verlag, 1975) p513. As well as in BESSEL’s letters, there
is no Comet fever in GAUSS’ cases: In this letter BESSEL reported that he had
6) Of course GAUSS was not a beginner. In 1811 he observed a big comet at Göttingen and recorded a detailed report: He communicated with BESSEL and also calculated. However we should remember it was in this 1811 that he mentioned about an idea to BESSEL of the beautiful integral theorem of the regular functions, later known as Cauchy’s theorem. There were a lot of beautiful ideas which remained incomplete and unpublished. If, it is said, GAUSS had not known the minor planets and comets and had not met the warm character of OLBERS, he might have exhausted all the problems of the modern mathematics by himself.
7) ”C. F. Gauss-H. C. Schumacher Briefwechsel II” (Georg O1ms Ver1ag, 1975) p414. GAUSS corresponded with SCHUMACHER once a week, and the book of correspondences is made of a thick volume (originally published as Briefwechsel zwischen C. F. Gauss und H. C. Schumacher in 1860 at Altona).
8) Op. cit. p415.