Edmond Halley
1656 - 1742

In most people’s minds Edmond Halley is remembered for one thing. No, he was not a rock star of the 1950’s, but he did have something in common with that rock star. Like the rock star, Edmond Halley is associated with a comet - Halley’s Comet - but Edmond Halley was more.

Edmond Halley was an able scientist/mathematician and began his career as a major astronomer by having a paper published on theoretical astronomy as a college student. This happened only twenty years after his birth on October 29, 1656 in Hagerston (near London) in England.

All during Edmond’s early life he was interested in science, especially astronomy. He said, “from my tenderest youth I gave myself over to the consideration of Astronomy.” He was intrigued with science which gave Halley “so great a pleasure as is impossible to explain to anyone who has not experienced it” Besides being known as a highly intelligent youth Edmond was named captain of his school, St. Paul, at age 15. He grew up as simply a normal boy with a sense of humor and a great charm of manner.

Edmond continued his education at Queen’s College, Oxford at the age of 17. He was “particularly taken notice of for the extraordinary advances he made at the same time in the Mathematics.”

Edmond left Oxford before graduating and he did not receive a degree but this did not hinder his achievements in mathematics and science. Later on he did receive three honorary degrees from Oxford.

In mathematics Edmond Halley contributed much. Edmond devoted several papers that greatly improved the theory of equations in algebra. He also prepared papers about the doctrine of logarithms and the property of sections of a cone. He also was one of the pioneers in social statistics by calculating annuities from mortality tables. All of this brilliant work in mathematics earned him the Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford in 1704. While a professor at Oxford Edmond published important editions of the work of Apollonius of Pega and of other ancient geometricians.

Using the tools of mathematics it was in the field of the physical sciences, especially astronomy that Edmond excelled. He catalogued the positions of about 350 Southern Hemisphere stars and observed a transit of Mercury across the Sun. Edmond later urged that the latter phenomenon and future transits of Venus be used to find out the distance of the Sun.

Edmond Halley worked out a theory of the orbits of comets in A Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets in 1705 and concluded that the comet of 1682 (the one that still bears his name) was periodic. He correctly predicted that it would return in 76 years. Then in 1710 Edmond compared the present star positions with those listed in Ptolemy’s catalog which was almost 1700 years old. From that, Edmond deduced that the stars must have a slight motion of their own and went on to show this motion in three stars. With all this work in astronomy Edmond was appointed Astronomer Royal in 1720.

In addition to all the work in astronomy Edmond Halley is generally considered the founder of geophysics especially for his paper on trade winds and his work on tides and the sources of fountains and springs. He made observations concerning the magnetism of the earth and developed a general theory about this. Also, Edmond made others aware of the relationship between the barometric pressure and the kind of weather. Even with all of this he had time to serve as captain of the Paramore, a ship built for scientific expeditions.

With all that he accomplished you would think that would know and recognize the name of Edmond Halley more than just being associated with a comet. But there was a reason. During the same time there was another very well known scientist/mathematician by the name of Sir Isaac Newton - the discoverer of the Three Laws of Motion. Even then Edmond Halley had a hand in Newton becoming famous. Edmond supported Newton both morally and financially to get Newton’s work published.

After a long and accomplished life and career Edmond Halley died on January 14, 1742 in Greenwich, England at the age of 86.

Contributed by Chuck Hammond

References:

  1. Armitage, A., (1966), Edmond Halley, Nelson: London.
  2. Ronan, C.A., (1969), Edmond Halley: Genius in Eclipse, Doubleday & Company, Inc.: Garden City, New York.
  3. http://es.rice.edu/ES/humsoc/Galileo/Catalog/Files/halley.html (2000).
  4. http://faust.ird.hr/~dpaar/fizicari/xhalley.html (2000).

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