|_||Astrophysical Institute Neunhof|
The Astrophysical Institute Neunhof is continuing the tradition of the «Gelehrte Gesellschaft für Sternenkunde und Naturforschung zu Neunhof» (academic society for astronomy and natural philosophy in Neunhof), which was founded in 1790 by Carl-Friedrich Ossiander and Balthasar Kress. Complying with the spirit of the age, it was the ambition of this society’s members, to “emerge from their self-incurred immaturity”. Shaping of the capabilities, deployment of the talents, and cultivation of the character were considered important prerequisites for that purpose. Last not least scientific education was regarded a key element on the long way to a mature citizen’s status. “Sapere aude!”(dare to know) was the motto of the day.
The notion “natural philosophy” was interpreted quite general: The society occupied itself with physics, chemistry, botany, medicine, geology, geography, astronomy, observed the records of explorer’s, who returned from distant continents, and discussed the latest progress of machine technology, mining, and traffic engineering. Its a little bit strange, that „Sternenkunde”(astronomy) is accounted separately from „Naturforschung”(natural philosophy) in the society’s name. Although Newton’s mechanics were applied successfully since more than a century to both the planets system and to terrestrial phenomena – apparently there was still some fundamental difference assumed inbetween earthly and extraterrestrial nature.
Most of the Neunhof society’s members were not professional specialists, but interested laymen, who earned their subsistence by other means, and dealt with scientific topics only in their leisure time. In those days that wasn’t so unusual as it might seem by today. Remember that a large percentage of the eighteenth century discoveries is owed to amateur scientists. Only in the course of the nineteenth century the center of research shifted towards the professional full-time scientists, who where employed by universities.
Associations of citizens from the city of Nürnberg and it's environs with similar objectives can look back on an old tradition. Already in 1644 the «Pegnesische Blumenorden» (Order of flowers on the banks of river Pegnitz) has been founded in Nürnberg. This (secular) order, which is still active by today, is devoted to the advancement of german language and poetry. By 1676 the order established a labyrinth with a small cottage for meetings of the order's members, which is located only some few hundred meters east of the villages of Kraftshof and Neunhof. Thus it seems likely that the «Pegnesische Blumenorden» stimulated the foundation of the «Gelehrte Gesellschaft für Sternenkunde und Naturforschung zu Neunhof», same as the foundation of the «Gesellschaft zur Beförderung vaterländischer Industrie» (society for the promotion of industry in the motherland), which took place in Nürnberg by 1792.
The cooperation within the academic society in Neunhof consisted essentially of lectures, which were given at irregular frequency. Thereby the members informed one another about the progress in their respective fields of scientific interest. In some cases they also read about their own research. A further, not insignificant part or the lectures were read by external referents, who were – with financial support by several well-off members – invited to Neunhof, to offer first-hand latest informations to the academic society. The society’s archive, in which all presentations were collected , would by today offer a fascinating collection of documents, covering the history of science of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century. Unfortunately it got lost in 1943, as will be reported below. Therefore here we can only list some highlights of the society’s history.
The year 1838 brought about an outstanding astronomical achievement: The first measurement of a stellar parallax due to Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel. Therewith the immense dimensions of the universe, and at the same time the tininess of the earth – even of the entire solar system – was clearly pictured to everybody. Accordingly lively were the discussions, which this discovery triggerd in the Neunhof academic society.
The society managed to win Bessel himself as speaker for the celebration of her 50.anniversary in 1840. Unfortunately the Prussian government in summer 1840 imposed travel restrictions because of a cholera epidemic raging in north-eastern Prussia, and Bessel had to cancel the trip. He could merely send the script of his lecture, which was read to the festive gathering, and commentated competently, by Walther Hasenöhrl from Erlangen.
As for all Europeans who were not completely indifferent about astronomy, also for the Neunhof academic society the discovery of the planet Neptune in September 1846 was a big sensation. LeVerrier had analized the perturbations of Uranus’ orbit. He had explained them as the effect of a still unknown planet, and had computed the orbit of that hypothetical planet. Johann Gottfried Galle thereupon detected Neptune – only 1 degree aside the position indicated by LeVerrier – as a faint object of 8.order, which by its movement of several arc-seconds per day could be identified unambiguously as a planet. Everybody, including the Neunhof society, rated this event as an exceptional triumph of Newton’s physics. In several lectures, the basics of the planets model were presented, and the main features of LeVerrier’s computational methods were explained to the mathematically less educated members of the society.
Noteworthy is the unusual role, which woman played right from the start in the Neunhof academic society. In the nineteenth century, most germans expected woman to delve into poetry, or at the most into arts and music, and to show up in scientific meetings only as compagnions of their husbands. Only few believed that woman could be capable of scientific work. Quite different in Neunhof: As far as visible to us, the Neunhof academic society never made any difference inbetween her male and female members, but expected scientific activities from everybody, both men and woman. And as a matter of fact, all members apparently worked actively according to the societies’ intentions, albeit of course not everybody with identical success.
In this context, the work of Hermine Kress, who became well-known in the field of crystallography, deserves to be mentioned specially. Her two-volume book «Die Kristalle der Deutschen Mittelgebirge» (the crystals of Germany’s low mountain ranges), which was published in 1882 by Ambrosius Barth in Leipzig and underwent several reprints, was acknowledged as the authoritative standard work of this discipline for several decades. Only when X-ray structure analysis turned up as a novel tool, which revolutionized crystallography, her book was presumed to be outdated, and went into the libraries’ archives.
Rather sceptically commented was Bertha von Neuendank’s research project. Inspired by Franz Anton Mesmer, who by end of the eighteenth century believed to have detected a curative force of magnetic fields, she tried to immunize agricultural seeds against plant diseases by submitting them before sowing for some minutes to a magnetic field. Her results were ambiguous, but especially with beans and with fennel she thought to have demonstrated a positive effect due to this treatment.
Darwin’s 1859 published book on the origin of species triggered an appreciable number of lectures by internal and external speakers, which are evidence of the extraordinary impact caused by this work among the contemporaries.
Much influence on the activities of those members, who were interested in astronomy, had in the eighteen-sixties and -seventies Karl Remeis from the nearby Bamberg. Almost every year he gave lectures to the Neunhof society on the latest astronomical achievements. Remeis was convinced, that the recently detected law of energy conservation should be valid also for stars, that they therefore impossibly could shine eternally, but must have come into existence some finite time ago, and would die out within finite time. As a matter of fact, there were reports on novae, but in those years it remained completely incomprehensible, why novae are so rare and why stars live so long. E.g. why didn’t the sun consume its energy reservoire much faster than compatible with our knowledge of the earth’s history? This riddle could not be solved before atomic structure and nuclear fusion were understood. Remeis encouraged the society’s members, to watch out for novae and other alterations of the starry sky. It was a big sorrow to him, that he himself never in his life could observe such event.
About 1895 (the very details couldn’t any more be ascertained) the paleontologist Alphonse Milne-Edwards stayed in Frankenjura (the jurassic ridge nearby Nürnberg) for comparative studies. He used this opportunity to illustrate his research work on the evolution of birds in several lessons to the Neunhof society.
By end of the nineteen-twenties the activities of the Neunhof academic society decreased significantly. Lessons were held only scarcely, and less listeners appeared to the seldom meetings. We don’t know the reasons for this decline. Anyway a small circle of members continued the work until the second world war began. By then the practise of the Neunhof academic society ceased totally.
We still need to give an account of the lessons-archive’s fate: When during the second world war air attacks on german towns became more frequent, people in “Knoblauchsland”, the vegetables cultivation area north of Nürnberg, imagined to be safe of bombs, being more than 5 km off the town’s nearest industrial plants. The society’s archive by then was stored on the attic of the St.Georg church.
But in the night February-25/26 1943 a bomber, which probably had lost its way to Nürnberg, discharged its load here. The church was hit and burned down completely. After the war, the church was carefully reconstructed with the aid of a donation of the brothers Samuel and Rush Kress from New York (the church served the Neunhof family Kress for centuries as burial site), and could be re-inaugurated by 1952.
The archive of the academic society however was irrecoverablely lost. Virtually all data of the society’s history, which were displayed above, needed to be compiled from the former members’ commemorations. This fact may explain and excuse some inaccuracies.
Only by 1952, Theodor Friedrichkeit, Karl-Friedrich Baiersberg, and Charlotte Zumberg start to reanimate the old tradition. As the amateur-scientist, being typical for the eighteenth century, did not any more (or only quite rarely) exist, it seemed obvious that the re-foundation of the academic society could become a success only with a significantly modified concept. Instead of covering the whole field of science, the new society should concentrate onto just one branch of science. According to the will of the re-founders, this one branch should be physics and astrophysics, because the first half or the twentieth century here had seen two fundamental achievements, which weren’t yet sufficiently understood nor adequately reflected, and which made likely further important discoveries and developments:
The Theory of General Relativity had laid a new fundament to astronomy by its novel notion of space and time. Analysing the redshift in the spectra of far galaxies, Slipher and Hubble had provided evidence for the “flight of galaxies”. The cosmological models due to Friedman and LeMaitre, who had postulated cosmic expansion based on the field equations of GRT, therefore seemed to be verifiable facts, but not only phantasms of overstrung theorists. Could this possibly hold true as well for the theory’s singularities, which lateron were called black holes?
And Quantum Theory seemed to provide the fascinating potential, not only to understand the energy supply of stars, but also eventually to investigate in detail the complete cycle of the stars’ lifes from their formation until their end. But at the same time, quantum theory caused difficult epistemological questions, not least when being combined with the theory of general relativity.
For the forthcoming years and decades, here apparently a rich and fascinating field of research opened up, to which the re-founders of the society wanted to dedicate themselves. And the society’s members shouldn’t any more be laymen, but – same as the three re-founders themselves – professional physicists. The envisaged objectives were plainly to complex, to be tackled reasonably by amateurs after closing time. This new concept was reflected in the new name: The old «Gelehrte Gesellschaft für Sternenkunde und Naturforschung zu Neunhof» in 1952 was replaced by «The Astrophysical Institute Neunhof».