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Summary Article: Schwarzschild, Karl (1873-1916)
from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Place: Germany

Subject: biography, astronomy

German astronomer and theoretician who achieved great things despite a short lifespan. In addition to the conceptual work he carried out, he was a practical man who designed and constructed some of his own instruments and devised considerable improvements in the use of photography for astronomical purposes.

Schwarzschild was born in Frankfurt on 9 October 1873, the eldest of a family of five sons and one daughter. His father was a prosperous member of the Jewish business community in Frankfurt, and Schwarzschild spent a happy childhood surrounded by relatives who were talented in art and music. The first in his family to be scientific, he was educated at the local municipal school; in 1891 he went to Strasbourg Univeristy and spent two years there. He then continued his studies at Munich University. After graduating, he became an assistant at the Kuffner Observatory in Ottakring, Vienna, and in 1901 he was appointed associate professor at the University of Göttingen, where the observatory had been equipped by Karl Gauss 80 years previously. In the following year he was appointed full professor at the age of only 28, and he was also made director of the observatory. He left Göttingen in 1909 to succeed Hermann Vogel as director of the Astrophysical Observatory at Potsdam. At the outbreak of World War I he volunteered for service and was sent to Belgium to work at a weather station. He was then transferred to France to calculate trajectories for long-range shells, and to the Eastern Front, in Russia, where he contracted pemphigus, a metabolic disease of the skin that was then incurable. He died in Potsdam, Germany, on 11 May 1916. By his own request he was buried in Göttingen. For his war work he was awarded a posthumous Iron Cross, and in 1960 the Berlin Academy honoured him as the greatest German astronomer of the preceding century.

At secondary school, Schwarzschild bought himself some lenses in order to make a telescope. Aware of the boy's interest, his father introduced him to J Epstein, a mathematician and owner of a private observatory. Under the guidance of Epstein's son - later to become professor of mathematics at the University of Strasbourg - Schwarzschild gained his knowledge of the telescope, at the same time studying advanced mathematics and celestial mechanics. His first published work was a paper on celestial orbits, written at the age of 16. The subject of his PhD thesis was Henri Poincaré's theory of stable configurations in rotating bodies and its application to particular astronomical problems. He investigated the tidal deformation in satellites and the validity of Pierre Laplace's theory on the origin of the Solar System. Even before he graduated, he had devised a multi-slit interferometer enabling him to measure the distance between close double stars. Between 1896 and 1899 he gave lectures that conveyed an infectious natural enthusiasm to non-astronomers and were to become famous.

In observational astronomy Schwarzschild was the first to apply precise methods using photographic photometry, substituting a photographic plate at the telescope in place of the eye and measuring densities with a photometer. He photographed an aggregate of 367 stars and presented the results to the University of Munich as credentials to entitle him to teach there.

In 1900, he suggested that the geometry of space was possibly not in conformity with Euclidean principles. (This was 16 years before the publication of Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity.)

He introduced the concept of radiative equilibrium in astrophysics and was probably the first to see how radiative processes were important in conveying heat in stellar atmospheres. 1906 saw the publication of his work on the transfer of energy at and close to the solar surface. He observed the total solar eclipse on 30 August 1905, and obtained spectrograms, using a camera fitted with an objective prism, which gave information on the chemical composition of regions at various heights on the Sun. He also developed methods and techniques later to become standard in the preparation of stellar statistics.

In 1910 Schwarzschild made measurements from the photographs of Halley's Comet taken by the Potsdam expedition to Tenerife, and suggested that fluorescent radiation occurs in the tails of comets. In spectroscopy, he devised a spectrographic system that provided an efficient and accurate way to determine the radial velocities of stars. He then made further important contributions to geometric optics and to the theory behind the design of optical instruments.

Although primarily an astronomer, he was also a theoretical physicist and was one of the great promoters of Niels Bohr's theory of atomic spectra. As he lay dying, he completed a famous paper, in which he developed the ‘rules of quantization’. (Work carried out independently by Arnold Sommerfeld gave the theory of the Stark effect and the quantum theory of molecular structure.) These last papers also dealt with the gravitational field of a point mass in empty space and gave the first exact solution of Einstein's field equations.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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