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Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve

Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve

The German-born Russian astronomer and geodesist Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve (1793-1864) is noted for his observations of double stars and for the measurement of the meridional arc from the north coast of Norway to Ismail on the Danube.

On April 15, 1793, F. G. W. von Struve was born in Altona, then part of the Holy Roman Empire. After escaping in 1808 from a French press gang seeking recruits for Napoleon's army, he entered the University of Dorpat (now Tartu in Estonia). His brother, Karl, taught philology there, and the younger Struve decided to follow his footsteps; he completed his studies and received a degree in philology by December 1810.

Under the influence of the physicist Georg Friedrich Parrot, Struve developed an interest in the exact sciences, especially astronomy. In 1812 he began his first astronomical observations at Dorpat Observatory, and later he was appointed extraordinary professor of mathematics and astronomy as well as observer there. From 1818 to 1838, under Struve's leadership, the work at Dorpat Observatory achieved international acclaim, particularly after 1824, when Struve received the Fraunhofer equatorial telescope with the 9.6-inch achromatic objective lens—the largest aperture for its day.

Struve elected to study double (binary) stars with his newly acquired telescope. From November 1824 to February 1827, he spent 320 hours in the course of 138 nights, observing roughly 400 stars per hour, for a total of 120,000 stars, of which 2,200 were doubles. He published his studies on multiple-star systems in Catalogus novus (1827), Mensurae micrometricae (1837), and Positiones mediae (1852). His examination of binary stars demonstrated that Isaac Newton's law of gravitation operates outside the solar system and is therefore a universal law and that multiple-star systems are not rare. For his scientific accomplishments Struve was elected to full membership in the St. Petersburg Imperial Academy of Sciences.

In 1830 Czar Nicholas I set aside land in the Pulkovo Hills outside St. Petersburg as the site for a new astronomical observatory and selected Struve for the commission responsible for its construction. When the Pulkovo Observatory opened in 1839, it could boast not only of Struve's being its first director but also of housing a telescope with a 15-inch objective lens. It was the best-equipped observatory in Europe.

At Pulkovo Observatory, Struve continued observing binary stars and moved into the areas of practical astronomy and geodesy. The observatory's staff also made numerous measurements of geographic points in Russia to supply information necessary for road building, railways, and military needs, and in 1845 Struve helped to found the Russian Geographical Society. After his death on Nov. 23, 1864, his son, Otto Wilhelm Struve, continued the Struve dynasty in Russian astronomy; his directorship of Pulkovo Observatory began in 1858 and lasted until 1899.

Further Reading

There is no definitive biography of Struve in English or Russian. Scattered references to his accomplishments appear in the technical work by Robert G. Aitken, The Binary Stars (1918); in Hector MacPherson, Makers of Astronomy (1933); in the highly readable book by Pierre Rousseau, Man's Conquest of the Stars (trans. 1959); and in Alexander Vucinich, Science in Russian Culture (1963). □

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