Goldbach’s Celestial Atlas

July 29, 2013

Christian Goldbach, Prussian mathematician. Probably most famous for the Goldbach conjecture, one of the oldest unsolved problems in mathematics:

Every even integer greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two primes.

The story goes that he scribbled this conjecture in the margin of a letter he wrote to Euler. In fact, he wrote two versions of the conjecture in that letter -- one in the body, and one in the margin. The statement above, which is how we know the Goldbach conjecture today, actually came from a subsequent letter, in which he and Euler continued the original conversation.

But less known is the fact that Goldbach also dabbled -- very briefly -- in astronomy. In 1799 he published Neuester Himmels - Atlas zum Gebrauche für Schul und Akademischen Unterricht, nach Flamsteed ... [], in einer neuen Manier, mit doppelten schwarzen Stern-Charten bearbeitet; durchgehends verbessert, und mit den neuesten astronomischen Entdeckungen vermehrt [The Newest Celestial Atlas for the use of School and Academic Education, according to Flamsteed …[], in a new Style, edited with double black Star-Charts; improved and expanded with the latest astronomical Discoveries].

NewImageThe constellation Leo, with figures
Thumbnail image from The Linda Hall Library

The atlas was printed with white stars on a black background in two pressings: the first pressing had the stars only, as you would see them in the night sky. On the second pressing, annotations and figures of the constellations were added, as seems to have been customary with star-charts of the time.

Neuster Himmels was Goldbach's only astronomical publication. The Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering, & Technology in Kansas City, Missouri has plates from the first edition of the atlas viewable online. You can see the charts as fairly large images both with and without the figures.