Astronomy Bio...Christian Mayer

Jay Bitterman

Christian Mayer was born on August 20, 1719 in Czechoslovakia that was then known as Mederizenlin. It is suggest that received his education at various centers of learning throughout Europe. He excelled in Greek, Latin, philosophy, theology and mathematics. What is definitely known is that when he was in his early twenties he left home because his father strongly disapproved of his desire to become a Jesuit. On Sept.26, 1745 he entered the Society of Jesus as a novitiate at Mannheim. When he finished his studies he taught humanities at Aschaffenburg.

In 1752, at the age of 33, he attained such success in this chosen profession that he was selected to be Professor of Mathematics and Physics at Heidelberg, but his main interest was astronomy. In 1755 the Elector Palatine Karl Theodor constructed the first observatory at Schwetzingen and a larger one at Mannheim. Mayer was appointed Court Astronomer and became responsible for equipping both of them with the best available instruments. At both Mannheim and Schwetzingen he pursued his observations and published many memoirs of which a few were published in the "Philosophical Transactions" of London. In 1773, when Pope Clement XIV dissolved the Jesuit order, thus rendering Mayer's court position unsustainable, he was relieved of his duties before he had the opportunity to complete the equipping of the observatories but he managed to continue his astronomical studies.

In 1769 the Empress Catherine of Russia invited him to St. Petersburg to observe the transit of Venus. In 1778 one of his observations that he made while at Mannheim was recorded in the "Tables d'aberration et de mutation" and gave rise to much discussion. He contended that many of the most conspicuous stars in the southern heavens were surrounded by smaller stars and where considered as satellites. The observations made by contemporaries, including Herschel and Schröter who had much more powerful telescopes, were unable verify his observations. However, in 1778, Mayer defended their reality and responded to one of his critics, the well-known astronomer Father Höll.

In 1779 he published a Latin work on the same subject. Although his observations were made in good faith the observations were flawed due to an optical illusion. In 1781 he published his catalogue of 80 double stars "Directory of all hitherto discovered doubled stars". He and Cassini visited Paris and Germany to broaden his interest in science. Mayer determined the degree of the meridian, based on calculations carried out in Paris and in the Rhineland Palatinate.

On April 16, 1783 Mayer died in Heidelberg.

Published in the August 2004 issue of the NightTimes