Professional contacts

The next logical step in Struve's astronomical career—and the next lap in the race to establish stellar distances in a convincing way—was for Struve to determine precise positions for the double stars listed in his Catalogus Novus and to target the most likely stars for ongoing parallax measurements. His projects came to fruition only after many years' delay, however. Between 1828 and 1834, his geodetic field work, travel, new administrative responsibilities, and family life all contributed to postpone progress on the parallax effort.

In 1828, Struve lost three family members. His younger brother Ludwig, who had lived in Dorpat for the past four years, died rather suddenly. Gustav, the Struves' oldest child, and Alexandra, aged three, died in an epidemic of typhoid fever. Other children, including Otto, were ill. The same year, Struve broke his leg in an accident with the very heavy ''great refractor'' telescope.

More difficult times yet lay in store, but Struve's professional contacts during this period buoyed him. Among the most important of these was his friendship with Alexander von Humboldt, the explorer and scientist who later coined the term ''island universe'' for what we now call galaxies.

Humboldt, a generation older than Struve, made a famous research voyage to Central and South America between 1799 and 1804. He surveyed the Spanish territory there and collected a wealth of geographical, meteorological, and botanical data, which he described in a lively account, Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctal Regions of the New Continent during the years 1799 to 1801. Charles Darwin said of his influence, ''I shall never forget that my whole course of life is due to having read and re-read as a youth his Personal Narrative.''9

Humboldt, Struve and Bessel shared a written correspondence and exchanged visits. The three men made an unlikely trio, yet they complemented each other in character and inspired one another intellectually. Humboldt, cosmopolitan and witty, came from an aristocratic family and returned from his South American voyages to serve as personal advisor to the Prussian king. His scientific interests were broad; only he could have attempted to write everything known about the Earth, as he did in his monumental and encyclopedic work, Cosmos, the first volume of which appeared in 1845. Of the three men, Humboldt had perhaps the greatest originality and broadest scope, Bessel the greatest genius in mathematics, and Struve the purest focus on uncovering the construction of the heavens.

Humboldt visited Dorpat in 1829, at the outset of an expedition to the Urals and central Asia, and consulted with Struve on a challenging project to measure the difference in elevation between the Caspian and Black seas. He was one of several distinguished visitors to Dorpat during Struve's tenure as director. Struve also cemented his relationship with his professional contacts in Europe by traveling west for astronomical conferences or meetings with instrument makers.

In 1830, Struve made one such trip, to Germany, France, and England. Struve stopped in Konigsberg, as he usually did on his voyages, to see Bessel. That these visits stimulated both parties can be seen from a letter Bessel sent afterwards to Humboldt. Bessel and Struve were to participate together in a surveying project: in 1831 and 1832, Bessel directed geodetical measurements of meridian arcs in East Prussia, to link up with Struve's surveys in the Baltic states. Bessel wrote, ''[T]he warmth which he shows for this project seized me too, so that the sacrifice which I must thus make of other tasks [in order to participate in the project] really seems smaller than it did before.'' He added that he counted himself lucky to have had first the astronomer Johann Encke, then Struve stay with him, for each in his own way exemplified how to live the ''astronomical way of life'' (das astronomische Leben).10

Struve's stop in Paris involved another of his oddly frequent brushes with Napoleonic wars and civil disturbances. Struve happened to pay a call to his colleagues at the Paris observatory on the morning of 27 July 1830. By the time he was ready to return to his hotel, a riotous crowd of students and workers had barricaded the streets, protesting repressive government decrees. France had returned to monarchy after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, and King Charles X and his cabinet had alienated the country with limits on suffrage and freedom of the press. For three days, during what came to be known as the 1830 revolution, Struve camped out at the observatory.

During a less agitated sojourn in London, Struve visited the Herschel house in Slough. The 40-foot telescope still rested in its wooden frame in the garden, a monument to the ambitions of its maker. William Herschel had died eight years earlier, in 1822; his widow Mary still lived. As we saw in chapter 4, William's sister and assistant Caroline had gone to live with a surviving brother in Hanover.

At the time of Struve's visit to London, William's son John Herschel, recently married, was reviewing the nebulae and clusters that his father had observed. He had already received his own Gold Medal for his work on double stars; along with the English astronomer James South, he was one of Struve's few competitors in this field. He had published papers on methods of determining parallax, had recently finished one of his most famous works, Discourse on Natural Philosophy, and was tackling the mathematical problem of determining the motions of double stars in orbit around a mutual center of gravity.

The highlight of Struve's trip occurred when John Herschel presented him with a complete set of William Herschel's papers, annotated by the author. Struve treasured these papers all his life. He believed they gave him essential insight in his own studies. Later they formed the nucleus of a world-class library of historical astronomical texts that Struve amassed at the Pulkovo Observatory.

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