John Goodricke, Amateur Astronomer
(17 Sept. 1764 - 20 Apr. 1786)
John Goodricke was
born to an aristocratic family from Yorkshire, England. Found to
be deaf at the age of one year old, possibly due to a fever, and was at
an early age sent to the "first of its kind" college for the deaf
and dumb in Edinburgh, Scotland. There he learned the three "r’s", and
to speak and read lips. After acquiring his basic education he was
enrolled at Warrington Academy, a progressive Unitarian theological seminary,
where such great minds as Joseph Priestly, Jean Paul Marat, and William
Enfield taught. Enfield was a tutor of religion, elocution, and astronomy
which was probably his first exposure to his later area of interest.
Described by the school as having partly conquered his handicap he was
" a very tolerable classic and an excellent mathematician".
At the age of 17 years old, he was living with his parents in York, a highly intellectual and scientific community of its time, and had already made the acquaintance of 28 year old Edward Pigott. Pigotts’ father, Nathaniel, had constructed one of the most advanced private observatories of that day. The Pigott observatory was one of only three private observatories in England at that time, capable of truly professional work, and was located only three blocks from the Goodricke residence. For John astronomy was at first just a pastime, but this soon developed into a scientific endeavor under the inspiration and guidance of the younger Pigott who was interested in the possible variability of certain stars, which he made a list of and gave to John to observe. Edward and John soon became close friends and observing partners.
Although several stars before this time were already considered variables or "novae", and credit for their discovery goes to other astronomers, it became John Goodrickes’ observational technique that was to become the standard used as positive proof of variability. Starting in Nov. of 1782, with beta Persei (Algol-Winking Demon) and using a graphic presentation of time vs apparent magnitude he determined the light curve and periods of variability. Using only the acuteness of his eye for his observations, in all types of atmospheric conditions and the usual interference of the moon, he was able to determine variations as small as 0.5 mag. by comparison to nearby stars of known magnitude. Six months later, in May of 1783, he presented his first paper to the Royal Society, in London. One year later in 1784, at the age of 19, after confirmation of his observations and refinement of Algol’s period, he received the yearly awarded "Godfrey Copley Medal" for the most significant discovery in science. Two weeks before his death, at age 21, he was again honored by being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. His death was probably caused by pneumonia contracted from long exposure to the night air during his continuing observations of delta Cephi. He was buried in the family vault at Hunsingore, in Yorkshire.
Goodricke was the first scientist to investigate a short period variable star and is also given credit for discovering two variable stars, beta Lyrae (an eclipsing binary) and delta Cephei (the prototype cepheid), and with starting a whole new field of observation in astronomy. Edward Pigott, his close friend and observing partner, is given credit for three variable stars. One of these, eta Aquilae, was a joint discovery. John Goodricke also put forth the theory that Algol was an eclipsing binary, which was not proved until over one hundred years later, by Hermann Vogel in 1889, using spectroscopic methods. Another theory he advanced was to explain his observed unequal minima of beta Lyrae. This he proposed was the possibility of dark spots on the surface of one of the stars and that the axis was inclined to that of the earth, which has only recently known to be true of some variables.
It is interesting that the popular press of his time touted his discoveries as proof that planets were orbiting other stars. It is notable that Goodrickes’ procedure is still in use, over 200 years later, with equipment much more sensitive than the human eye, as a method of determining the presence of planets orbiting stars.
Compiled from an article in Sky & Telescope, Nov. 1978, and other sources.
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