Astronomy Bio...James E. Keeler

Jay Bitterman

James Edward Keeler was born on September 10,1857, in La Salle, Illinois. He did not attend school between the ages of 12 and 20. It was during these years that he developed an enthusiastic interest in astronomy. He constructed many astronomical instruments, while spending numerous hours studying the Solar System. In 1881, with the help of a benefactor, he attended Johns Hopkins University and earned his bachelors' degree. As a student he took part in an expedition to Colorado to study a solar eclipse. In 1881, as assistant to Samuel Langley, Director of the Allegheny Observatory, he began his career by joining in that year's expedition to the Rocky Mountains to measure solar infrared radiation. Keeler went to Germany in 1883 to study at the Universities of Heidelberg and Berlin. He returned to the Allegheny Observatory a year later. In 1886 he went to Mount Witney, the future site of the Lick Observatory. After the completion of The Lick Observatory in 1888, he was appointed Astronomer. In 1891 Keeler became Professor of Astrophysics and Director of the Allegheny Observatory. In 1898 he returned to the Lick Observatory as Director. Also, in 1898 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society of London. He was made a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1900.

Keeler's earliest work was the spectroscopic presentation of evidence for the similarity between the Orion nebula and stars. In 1888, at Lick Observatory, he used the 35-inch refracting telescope with an improved spectroscopic grating and demonstrated that nebulae resembled stars in their pattern of movement. He also observed Mars, but could not confirm Schiaparelli's observation that the Martian surface was etched with a pattern of "canals". In 1895 Keeler made a spectroscopic study of Saturn and its rings in order to explore its period of rotation. He found that the rings did not have a uniform rate of rotate, thus proving for the first time that they were not solid and corroborated James Clerk Maxwell's theory that the rings are composed of meteoritic particles. After 1898 Keeler's attention was focused on the study of all the nebulae in William Herschel's hundred year old catalogue. He managed to photograph half of them. During the course of his work he discovered many thousands of new nebulae and revealed their close relationship to stars.

Keeler was not only a keen American astrophysicist and successful observer of astronomical phenomena, he was also able to design and construct instruments. These included modifications to the Crossley reflecting telescope and a spectrograph in which spectral lines were recorded using a camera.

He died suddenly in San Francisco on August 12, 1900.

Published in the September 2000 issue of the NightTimes