Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Ole Christensen RÝmer (September 25 1644 – September 19 1710) was a Danish astronomer who made the first quantitative measurements of the speed of light (1676). RÝmer was born in Aarhus and died in Copenhagen.
In 1681, he returned to Denmark and was appointed professor of Astronomy at Copenhagen University. He was active also as an observer, both at the University Observatory at the Round Tower and in his home, using improved instruments of his own construction. Unfortunately, his observations have not survived: they were lost in the great fire of Copenhagen in 1728.
In his position as royal mathemathican, he introduced the first national system for weights and measures in Denmark in May 1 1683. Initially based on the Rhine foot , a more accurate national standard was adopted in 1698. Later measurements of the standards fabricated for length and volume show an excellent degree of accuracy. His goal was to achieve a definition based on astronomical constants, using a pendulum. This would happen after his death, practicalities making it too inaccurate at the time. Notable is also his definition of the new Danish mile. It was 24000 Danish feet, which corresponds to 4 minutes of arc latitude, thus making navigation easier.
He also developed one of the first temperature scales. Fahrenheit visited him in 1708 and improved on the RÝmer scale, the result being the familiar Fahrenheit temperature scale still in use today in a few countries.
He also established several navigation schools in many Danish cities.
In 1705, RÝmer was made the second Chief of the Copenhagen Police, a position he kept until his death in 1710. He fired the entire force as one of his first acts, being convinced that morale on the force was alarmingly low. He was the inventor of the first street lights (oil lamps) in Copenhagen, and worked hard to try and control the beggars, poor people, unemployed, and prostitutes of Copenhagen. This was the start of a social reform.
In Copenhagen he made rules for building new houses, got the city's water supply and sewers back in order, ensured that the city's fire department got new and better equipment, and was the moving force behind the planning and making of new pavement in the streets and on the city squares.
RÝmer and the speed of light
The determination of longitude is a significant practical problem in cartography and navigation. King Philip III of Spain offered a prize for a method to determine the longitude of a ship out of sight of land. Galileo proposed a method of establishing the time of day, and thus longitude, based on the times of the eclipses of the moons of Jupiter, in essence using the Jovian system as a cosmic clock; this method was not significantly improved until accurate mechanical clocks were developed in the eighteenth century. Galileo proposed this method to the Spanish crown (1616-1617) but it proved to be impractical, because of the inaccuracies of Galileo's timetables and the difficulty of observing the eclipses on a ship. However, with refinements the method could be made to work on land.
After studies in Copenhagen, RÝmer joined the observatory of Uranienborg on the island of Hven, near Copenhagen, in 1671. Over a period of several months, Jean Picard and RÝmer observed about 140 eclipses of Jupiter's moon Io, while in Paris Giovanni Domenico Cassini observed the same eclipses. By comparing the times of the eclipses, the difference in longitude of Paris to Uranienborg was calculated. In 1672 RÝmer went to Paris and continued observing the satellites of Jupiter as Cassini's assistant.
RÝmer observed that times between eclipses got shorter as Earth approached Jupiter, and longer as Earth moved farther away. He hypothesized that this variation was due to the time it took for light to travel the lesser or greater distance, and estimated that the time for light to travel the diameter of the Earth's orbit, a distance of two astronomical units, was 22 minutes. This is somewhat greater than the currently accepted value, which is about 16 minutes and 40 seconds.
This discovery was published in a short paper, "Dťmonstration touchant le mouvement de la lumiŤre trouvť par M. Roemer de l'Acadťmie des Sciences", in Journal des scavans, December 7 1676. A plaque at the Observatory of Paris, where the Danish astronomer happened to be working, commemorates what was, in effect, the first measurement of a universal quantity made on this planet.
In 1809, again making use of observations of Io, but this time with the benefit of more than a century of increasingly precise observations, the astronomer Delambre reported the time for light to travel from the Sun to the Earth as 8 minutes and 12 seconds. Depending on the value assumed for the astronomical unit, this yields the speed of light as just a little more than 300,000 kilometres per second.
- R.J. MacKay and R.W. Oldford. "Scientific Method, Statistical Method and the Speed of Light", Statistical Science 15(3):254–278, 2000. (mostly about A.A. Michelson, but considers forerunners including RÝmer. Also available on line: )
- ROEMER, Dťmonstration touchant le mouvement de la lumiŤre (RÝmer's 1676 paper, in French, as ordinary text)
- A Demonstration concerning the Motion of Light, communicated from Paris (RÝmer's 1676 paper, in English and French, as bitmap images)
- RÝmer and the Doppler Principle. (further details on RÝmer's result)
- Fysikeren Ole RÝmer (in Danish)
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