Famous Austrian Astronomers

Georg von Peuerbach: "Theoricae novae planetarum"

Georg von Peuerbach: “Theoricae novae planetarum”, 1473 (Franz Kerschbaum, Institut für Astronomie, Universität Wien – Rare book collection of the University Observatory, Vienna)

Maximilian Hell: "Observatio transitus Veneris ante discum Solis", 1770

Maximilian Hell: “Observatio transitus Veneris ante discum Solis”, 1770 (Franz Kerschbaum, Institut für Astronomie, Universität Wien – Rare book collection of the University Observatory, Vienna)

Josef Johann and Carl Littrow bust ensemble in the Arkadenhof of the University of Vienna

Josef Johann and Carl Littrow bust ensemble in the Arkadenhof of the University of Vienna (Maria Pflug-Hofmayr)

Page 308 of the “Canon der Finsternisse”

Page 308 of the “Canon der Finsternisse” with eclipses from 2008 to 2030, 1887. Public Domain)

The Tower of Winds was built between 1578 and 1580 by the Bolognese architect Ottaviano Mascherino who also built the Apostolic Palace. It was originally erected to create an astronomical observatory to study the Gregorian Calendar Reform implemented by Gregory XIII. In 1891 the Tower of Winds became the quarters of the Vatican Observatory (Specola Vaticana) founded by Leo XIII the same year. (Archivum Secretum Vaticanum)

Although Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo all have roads named after them in Vienna, none of them have actually worked here. There are, however, several famous Austrian astronomers that you might (or might not) have heard of.

Johannes von Gmunden (ca. 1385-1442) was a mathematician, astronomer and humanist. He was professor at Vienna University and taught the astronomical and mathematical knowledge of antiquity and the Arabs. He also wrote the first calendar in the German language.

Georg von Peuerbach (1423-1461) studied astronomy at Vienna University and went on to be professor there. His most famous works are “Theoriae novae planetarum” (a concordance between Ptolemy and the astronomical knowledge of his time) and “Tabulae eclipsium super meridiano Wiennensi” (tables for calculating solar and lunar eclipses). One of his pupils was

Johannes Müller (Regiomontanus) (1436-1476). He was a mathematician and astronomer. After studying Arabic translations of Ptolemy, he substantially improved knowledge of algebra and trigonometry. He also built astronomical instruments. Vasco da Gama and Columbus used his “Ephemerides quas vulgo vocant Almanach” on their journeys.

Maximilian Hell (1720-1792) was a Jesuit priest and astronomer. He became the Director of the Vienna Observatory in 1756 and published the “Ephemerides astronomicae ad meridianum Vindobonemsem” in 37 volumes. In 1769 he went on a scientific expedition to observe the transit of Venus.

Josef Johann Littrow (1835-1840) actually studied law and medicine, but acquired extensive astronomical knowledge as an amateur and ended up earning the position of Professor of Astronomy at the University of Vienna and became Director of the first University Observatory in Vienna.

His son, Carl Ludwig Littrow (1811-1877), studied mathematics and astronomy at the University of Vienna and succeeded his father as the Director of the University Observatory. It was under his leadership that the construction of the new (and current) University Observatory began -he died before it was finished, however.

Theodor von Oppolzer (1841-1886) was an astronomer and mathematician, although he originally studied medicine. He built a private observatory in his father’s house and published the results of his observations in the journals of the Academy of Sciences. He led an expedition to observe the solar eclipse of 1886 and went on to publish the “Canon der Finsternisse” – a compilation of 8,000 solar and 5,000 lunar eclipses from 1207BC to 2163AD.

Johann Georg Hagen (1847-1930) was a Jesuit priest, who studied physics and astronomy. After the expulsion of Jesuit priests from Germany, he went to England, where he was ordained into priesthood and later went to the US, where he became the Director of the Georgetown University Observatory in 1888. In 1906, Pope Pius X called Hagen to take charge over the Vatican Observatory in the Tower of Winds, which had re-opened in 1891. Hagen’s publications include the “Atlas Stellarum Variabilium”.

Otto E. Neugebauer (1899-1990) was a mathematician and historian of science and is famous for creating our current understanding of mathematics and astronomy from Babylonia and ancient Egypt, through Greco-Roman antiquity, to India, Islam, and Europe of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. He published numerous books, including “Mathematical Cuneiform Texts”, “The Exact Sciences in Antiquity”, “A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy” and “Astronomical Cuneiform Texts”.

Thomas Gold (1920-2004) was an astrophysicist. His family moved from Vienna to Germany during his childhood, but had to flee when the Nazis came to power and eventually ended up in England, where he studied physics at Cambridge University. In 1948, he published influential papers on the (now abandoned) Steady State Theory together with Hermann Bondi and Fred Hoyle. In his later career, he worked at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and as Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University.