Palisa, Johann

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(b. Troppau, Austrian Silesia [now Czechoslovakia], 6 December 1848; d. Vienna, Austria, 2 May 1925)


While a student Palisa became known for his skill in mathematics, and in 1866 he entered the University of Vienna to study that subject. He soon became attracted to astronomy, the science to which he devoted the rest of his life. In 1870 he was appointed assistant astronomer at the Vienna observatory. There he performed routine observations: at night, of positions of stars with the meridian circle; during the day, of the spots on the sun’s disk. In 1871 Palisa became associate astronomer at the Geneva observatory. A few months later, at the age of twenty-three, he was appointed director of the Austro-Hungarian naval observatory at Pola, with the rank of commander. His main task was precise timekeeping by astronomical observations. For this purpose a new meridian circle was acquired; and he himself invented the “Chronodeik,” a small instrument for determining time by measuring equal heights of stars east and west of the meridian. Palisa was also eager to promote scientific research. Inspired by Oppolzer, he began to observe asteroids systematically with the small telescope at Pola; he obtained a great many positions of asteroids already known and discovered twenty-eight new ones between 1874 and 1880.

Meanwhile, a splendid new observatory had been built at Vienna with a refracting telescope of twentyseven inches aperture, the largest at that time. Palisa agreed to join the observatory as associate astronomer after being assured that the large telescope would always be at his disposal. From 1883 to the fall of 1924 he used it to the utmost, an undertaking made arduous because there was no automation: the telescope, the observer’s stage, and the dome were moved manually. The discovery of 120 asteroids is Palisa’s best-known work but not his greatest. About 1893 Max Wolf at Heidelberg had begun to discover asteroids photographically; and the two scientists, after a short period of rivalry, achieved an effective collaboration: Wolf continued to discover asteroids near their opposition, while Palisa followed them to great distances with his powerful telescope so that their orbits could be determined with greater precision. Valuable products of Palisa’s work are two catalogs containing the positions of 4,696 stars and, from his collaboration with Wolf, the 210 sheets of the Palisa-Wolf photographic charts of the sky. Undoubtedly, Palisa was the most effective observer of the Austrian astronomers.


I. Original Works. Palisa’s writings are listed in Poggendorff, III, 1000–1001; IV, 1113; V, 937–938; and VI, 1941. They include “Das Meridian-Instrument zu Pola,” in Repertorium für Experimental-Physik physikalische Technik …,13 (1877); “Beobachtungen während der Sonnenfinsternis 6. Mai 1883,” in Sitzungsberichte der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien, Abt. IIa, 88 (1884), 1018–1031; “Katalog von 1238 Sternen,” in Denkschriften der Akademie der Wissenschaften (Vienna), 67 (1899), written with F. Bidschof; “Sternlexikon von —1° bis +19°Deklination,” in Annalen der Universitätssternwarte in Wien, 4th ser., 17 (1902); “Über einen Plan zur Herstellung von Ekliptikal-Sternkarten,” in Vierteljahrsschrift der Astronomischen Gesellschaft (Leipzig), 39 (1904) and 41 (1906); and “Katalog von 3458 Sternen,” in Annalen der Universitätssternwarte in Wien, 4th ser., 19 (1908). There are also many observational notes in Astronomische Nachrichten,76–222 (1870–1924.)

II. Secondary Literature. See J. Hepperger, “J. Palisa,” in Astronomische Nachrichten,225 (1925); S. Oppenheim, “J. Palisa,” in Vierteljahrsschrift der Astronomischen Gesellschaft (Leipzig), 60 (1925); and J. Rheden, Johann Palisa (Vienna, 1925), a pamphlet.

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