Benjamin Apthorp Gould  (1824—1896)


    Benjamin Apthorp Gould was one of the most important American astronomers of the 19th century.  He was the first American to earn a PhD in the field, his teacher being the great Carl Friedrich Gauss. He was among the first to realize the importance of both telegraphy and photography to astrometry, the precise measurement of star position and magnitude, and for the determination of longitude and time, and was the first to photograph Mars.  A hard working, diligent mathematician, in the days when the tedious and voluminous calculations inherent in astronomy were all done by hand, he also played a major role as founder, in 1849, and editor until his death, of The Astronomical Journal in codifying the many varieties of nomenclature then in use among astronomers of the day, and promoting both the cutting edge of the science in America and the cooperation of colleagues worldwide. He was embroiled in a bitter public controversy over who should control the science being done at the observatories then being built by the wealthy barons of the day.  His side, which argued that science should guide scientists, not the whims of rich but eccentric donors, ultimately prevailed, though at great personal cost to Dr. Gould, and all humanity is in his debt as a result. His public antagonism of the powers that be meant he would never be granted a major post in his country’s astronomy establishment, but this did not deter him much, as he carried on publishing The Astronomical Journal, helped found the National Academy of Sciences, and then braved the wilds of Argentina for 15 years to build Cordoba Observatory and produce his century’s greatest catalog of the southern sky, completing the visual charting of the heavens with unprecedented precision of all stars down to magnitude 7.5, and photographing and measuring scores of open clusters in the southern Milky Way.

He also re-discovered something as big as all outdoors: today’s astronomers call it Gould’s Belt, in his honor.   



~ Matt Terry  2003 ~