Ole Rømer


Ole Rømer : biography

5 October 1644 – 19 September 1710

The Ole Rømer Museum

The Ole Rømer Museum is located in the municipality of Høje-Taastrup, Denmark, at the excavated site of Rømer’s observatory Observatorium Tusculanum at Vridsløsemagle. The observatory operated until about 1716, when the remaining instruments were moved to Rundetårn in Copenhagen. There is a large collection of ancient and more recent astronomical instruments on display at the museum. Since 2002 this exhibition has been a part of the museum Kroppedal at the same location.

Popular culture

Ole Rømer features in the game Empire: Total War as a gentleman under Denmark.

In the 1960s, the comic-book superhero The Flash on a number of occasions would measure his velocity in "Roemers" , in honour of Ole Rømer’s "discovery" of the speed of light.

Rømer and the speed of light

The determination of longitude is a significant practical problem in cartography and navigation. Philip III of Spain offered a prize for a method to determine the longitude of a ship out of sight of land, and 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, Rømer joined the observatory of Uraniborg on the island of Hven, near Copenhagen, in 1671. Over a period of several months, Jean Picard and Rømer 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.

Cassini had observed the moons of Jupiter between 1666 and 1668, and discovered discrepancies in his measurements that, at first, he attributed to light having a finite speed. In 1672 Rømer went to Paris and continued observing the satellites of Jupiter as Cassini’s assistant. Rømer added his own observations to Cassini’s and observed that times between eclipses (particularly those of Io) got shorter as Earth approached Jupiter, and longer as Earth moved farther away. Cassini made an announcement to the Academy of Sciences on 22 August 1676:

This second inequality appears to be due to light taking some time to reach us from the satellite; light seems to take about ten to eleven minutes [to cross] a distance equal to the half-diameter of the terrestrial orbit..

measurement of the speed of light. Rømer compared the duration of Io’s orbits as Earth moved towards Jupiter (F to G) and as Earth moved away from Jupiter (L to K).]] Oddly, Cassini seems to have abandoned this reasoning, which Rømer adopted and set about buttressing in an irrefutable manner, using a selected number of observations performed by Picard and himself between 1671 and 1677. Rømer presented his results to the French Academy of Sciences, and it was summarised soon after by an anonymous reporter in a short paper, ‘, published 7 December 1676 in the Journal des sçavans. Unfortunately the paper bears the stamp of the reporter failing to understand Rømer’s presentation, and as the reporter resorted to cryptic phrasings to hide his lack of understanding, he obfuscated Rømer’s reasoning in the process. Unfortunately Rømer himself never published his results.

Assume the Earth is in L, at the second quadrature with Jupiter (i.e. ALB is 90°), and Io emerges from D. After several orbits of Io, at 42.5 hours per orbit, the Earth is in K. Rømer reasoned that if light is not propagated instantaneously, the additional time it takes to reach K, that he reckoned about 3½ minutes, would explain the observed delay. Rømer observed immersions in C from the symmetric positions F and G, to avoid confusing eclipses (Io shadowed by Jupiter from C to D) and occultations (Io hidden behind Jupiter at various angles). In the table below, his observations in 1676, including the one on August 7, believed to be in opposition H,Point H had occurred about one month earlier, according to and the one observed at Paris Observatory to be 10 minutes late, on November 9.